Context for the Urbanophile’s Context

I’ve largely remained silent on Aaron “the Urbanophile” Renn’s critiques of Rhode Island, but since he delved into our history in the name of context, I feel the need to push back on some misinformation he seems to provide.

Renn starts with Slater Mill:

Why did America’s industrial revolution begin in Rhode Island? There are a lot of reasons. We were a coastal country, and Rhode Island was on the coast. Rhode Island was right in the middle of that Northeast Corridor from Philadelphia to Boston that was far more dominant then than it is now. So Rhode Island was in the middle of the action – it was centrally located. It was an era of water transport and power, and Rhode Island had the seaport access, and numerous small rivers it could dam for power. It was in the intellectual center of America, and had a freethinking culture that was open to the new and the different. And once the first mill was built, Rhode Island had first mover advantage in the marketplace.

Much of the assessment is dead on, but the part I’ve bolded is what niggles at me. Perhaps in 1636 this would’ve true. But by 1793 — when Moses and Smith Brown and William Almy were failing to find success with textile machinery — Rhode Island was already well on its way to achieving its places as one of the more backward New England states. This would’ve been shortly after Rhode Island ratified the U.S. Constitution by a narrow two-vote margin (after the anti-federalist assuaging Bill of Rights was promulgated to the states, anti-federalists were absent from the state ratification convention, and Gov. Collins’ support of the U.S. Constitution led to his downfall and 17 subsequent years of anti-federalist rule). A few years earlier, William West led a thousand armed farmers into Providence to break up an Independence Day event in celebration of the fourth state to ratify the Constitution.

While it might be comforting to libertarian-leaning thinkers to imagine Rhode Island as a place open to revolutionary thinking, by the time Slater propositioned Almy & Brown, Rhode Island’s “freethinking culture” was far more backward-looking than its neighbors. Instead, it had already formed the elitist formations that would survive past both the Dorr Rebellion in 1841 and the Bloodless Revolution in 1935. How backward-looking was this culture? Well, beyond the length of time it took Rhode Island to extend the franchise to even just the privileged class of white male adults, in 1814 Rhode Island sent a delegation to the secessionist Hartford Convention; fears of a separate New England peace with Great Britain meant that the US Army was ready to invade New England if need be.

So why would Slater have set up his eponymous mill in Pawtucket? Well, certainly because of the reasons Renn gives – minus the erroneous “freethinking culture” bit. But also because the Browns were rich and he likely saw he himself could get rich by breaking British law against exporting British mill designs. Regardless, even with its first mover advantage, Rhode Island’s place in history for textile mills and mill systems is merely at the start. Far more famous is Lowell, Massachusetts where the system became perfected. The conditions in these factories also helped start the labor movement in America. Context, ladies and gentlemen.

I’d argue that Rhode Island’s culture less values “freethinking” than what are mostly blatant acts of criminality; be it Roger Williams’ and Anne Hutchinson’s dissenting religious thought, Thomas Tew’s piracy, John Brown in both slave-trading and the Gaspee Affair, Slater the Traitor, Thomas Dorr’s rebellion and Buddy Cianci’s criminality. We can argue about the righteousness of the crimes, but by and large they all were crimes, and as Rhode Island has been less able to get away with crime its fortunes have also faded; though we should not confuse correlation with causation. Rhode Island’s is not a glorious history, and I love it, warts and all.

Renn also ignores other contexts. Renn attributes the shift in Southern business from slave-based agriculture to wage-based industry as a consequence of the Civil War and abolition. But as anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the Jim Crow South can tell you, American business was content to continue slavery-in-all-but-name well into the mid-20th Century, ending it only when the Civil Rights movement made it untenable. Furthermore, the cheap electrification of the South that helped give rise to its current advantageous industrial position is thanks to Great Depression-era government intervention; already-developed and industrialized Northern states have not been equal recipients of government largess in this regard. Under the current political climate they are unlikely to be.

Like the immigrant “intellectual elite” of Rhode Island from New York and Boston he castigates, Renn is likewise dismissive of home-grown Rhode Island efforts, writing:

…every Democratic candidate has pledged to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10/hr, which would be the highest statewide level in the country. Where did that idea come from? Did it originate in Rhode Island? I don’t think so.

I can think of no reason why a call for a $10.10 per hour minimum wage might have originated within Rhode Island’s boundaries.

He ends off by suggesting the following:

…if Rhode Island wants to perform differently, it needs to create an indigenous R&D capability, especially as most national progressive ideas emanate from elite citadels, which Rhode Island is not. This will be hard because to [sic] many of Rhode Island’s intellectual elite came from places like New York and Boston, and thus are steeped in that way of thinking.

Let’s set aside that Renn’s vague “intellectual elite” is a bogeyman with little actual power beyond advocacy. Rhode Island’s actual elite with actionable power tend to be homegrown, not settlers. In regard to that elite’s willingness to take risks, Renn is right that far too often it easier to pass policy that has show success in other states (especially Massachusetts and Connecticut) rather than have Rhode Island innovate and lead the way.

But Renn’s post ignores things he even knows about, most notably the Greenhouse Compact, which he seems to have endorsed a year ago. Though that was 20 years ago, today we still have RIPEC, the Economic Progress Institute, and even the Institute for Freedom and Prosperity or whatever it’s called. They’re homegrown, that’s the point. Beyond that, we have college-based research organizations, accelerators like Betaspring and Hope & Main, and advocacy organizations like Direct Action for Rights and Equality and others.

There’s a lot to take away from Renn’s post, and far more that he’s right on than is wrong on. It’s very likely that Renn’s critiques of Rhode Island will form a valuable part of the discourse about where we’ve been and where we should be going. But Renn’s points on history and context in this particular case are about as shallow as any other outsider’s examination of the state.

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