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Most Prominent Politicians (XIII): Rhode Island


As the nation’s smallest state and one of its least populated, not to mention being next to Massachusetts, you wouldn’t expect a whole lot from Rhode Island’s prominent politician list. And you’d mostly be right. Rhode Island has had a few pretty prominent individuals, but not a lot. I’d say that it has neither over nor under-performed.

1. Claiborne Pell. Senator, 1961-97. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helped draft the UN charter in 1945. Largely responsible for the creation of Pell Grants, which he also originally pushed to include education for prisoners. Main sponsor of the bill that created the NEA and NEH. Overall, an outstanding senator.

2. Nelson Aldrich. Senator, 1881-1911. Leading Republican of the Gilded Age. Known as “General Manager of the Nation” because of his central role in creating economic policies. These policies usually consisted of very high tariffs that impoverished American workers and put money in the pockets of his capitalist cronies. Helped create the Federal Reserve System. How elite was he? His daughter married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and he was Nelson Rockefeller’s grandfather. Did however come around to support the graduated income tax.

3. John Chaffee. Senator, 1976-99. Classic moderate Republican who was very supportive of environmental issues, much to the consternation of his own party. Pushed hard for Superfund. Supported the expansion of government health care coverage to the poor.

4. J. Howard McGrath. Attorney General, 1949-52, Senator and governor of the state before that. Not particularly notable in any way, but a solid New Dealer who resigned the AG post when Harry Truman overreached in trying to root out corruption in government. McGrath said he wouldn’t cooperate, even though the investigation started with his subordinates, and was forced out.

5. Theodore Green. Senator, 1937-61. Governor, 1933-37. Solid New Dealer. Was a front man for FDR on many of his more controversial items, including the courtpacking scheme and calling for an end to isolationism by 1940. Supporter of civil rights and of the Truman Doctrine. In fact, known as “The President’s Man,” for being an active supporter of presidential power, even under Eisenhower.

6. Ambrose Burnside. More famous for his disastrous generalship in the Civil War than as a politician. Was also a senator from 1875-81, where he played a leading role in foreign policy, serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1881. Also, it was his facial hair that led to the term “sideburns.” You see why.

7. William West. In the Early Republic, Rhode Island was most known for being a giant pain in the ass. The most radical state during the Revolution, it was Rhode Island’s intransigence that most undermined the Articles of Confederation, since the state would pass nothing. It was also the last of the 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution, not becoming a state until 1790, only doing so when the U.S. was ready to tax its exports to the rest of the nation like that of a foreign country. While there was no single leader who really dominated this discussion, William West probably was the most prominent. West notoriously led an army of 1000 armed men into Providence on July 4, 1788 to oppose a 4th of July celebration commemorating New Hampshire’s ratification of the Constitution. West was also a judge on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which at the time had the fantastic name, “Superior Court of Assize, and General Gaol Delivery.” West was also the plantiff in the first Supreme Court case ever decided, West v. Randallin which the Court told West he could not use continental currency to pay off his mortgage. Interesting guy all around.

8. Stephen Hopkins. Notable for his 1774 bill in the Rhode Island colonial legislature prohibiting the importation of slaves into RI, one of the first anti-slavery bills in what was to become the U.S. Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Helped create the Revolutionary Navy, limited as that may have been.

9. Thomas Dorr. Oddly enough, while RI was very radical during the Revolution, by the Jacksonian period, it was probably America’s most conservative state. Rural interests dominated state politics, even though Rhode Island had become a center of American industrialization. By 1841, Rhode Island was the only state that had not adopted universal suffrage for white males. Out of state of 108,000 people, there were 1800 eligible voters. Dorr was a representative in the Rhode Island state assembly who in 1842 led what is known as the Dorr Rebellion. It is very convoluted and complicated so I‘ll refer you to the Wikipedia page, but in short, Dorr’s followers entered into a near state of war with the Rhode Island elite (under the “Law and Order Party”) which led to the governor proclaiming martial law and issuing a warrant for Dorr’s arrest.

10. John Pastore, Senator, 1950-76, Governor, 1945-50. Solid, though relatively uninteresting Democrat. Gave the Keynote Address at the 1964 DNC. Oddly enough, he won his last election in 1970 over John McLaughlin, today the host of the McLaughlin Group, who was running as an antiwar priest. That kind of blows my mind.

I have to say that putting this list together was kind of a pain because the lack of obvious candidates forced me to do research, but was also probably the most fun because so many of these characters have odd things about them that make them interesting.

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