Newport has proven its amazing ability to evolve over 375 years and remain vital, as well as viable. As times and tastes changed, our town has continued to remain a bellwether. Rockwell Stensrud’s Newport, A Lively Experiment explains how, and why, most importantly! His is a page-turner and now he’s celebrating its re-publication in a handy paperback (artfully designed by Trixie Wadson.)
Newport has been “trending” since the late 1600s, attracting a group of free thinkers, entrepreneurial types and savvy merchant minds, brimming with artistic creativity. As Rockwell says in his prologue, “Lessons learned in Newport over the centuries helped contribute to the transformation of our nation at every phase of its development. “Intrigued? It makes for a wonderful tale, as everything in Newport seems to. I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this with you.
I’ve asked Rockwell the kind of questions that I think you’d want to — no hold back. If you’re as fascinated and fond of Newport as everyone seems to be, do yourself a favor — buy Newport, A Lively Experiment and treat yourself to an entertaining and thought-provoking read.
Enjoy my interview with Rocky, as his many friends call this handsome author.
An Interview with Rockwell Stensrud
Why such a provocative title as “…A Lively Experiment?” I am fascinated with the fact that this little “experiment” in Newport, Rhode Island later became the inspiration for the documents authored by our “founding fathers.” How powerful!
The King Charles Charter of 1663 for Rhode Island was the first time a European monarch allowed freedom of religion and separation of church and state in a colony – or anywhere, for that matter. The implications of this “lively experiment” were enormous. The United State Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which were written some 125 years later, incorporated the foundational concepts of liberty that were established in the Rhode Island Charter, a document mostly written by a Baptist minister and farmer from Newport, John Clarke.
Most histories do not acknowledge this fact. European thinkers of the Enlightenment Age like John Locke are given credit for these bold new ideas about freedom of choice when in fact they had been conceived and made law in Rhode Island over a century earlier.
Why was King Charles II so compliant in signing off on the Charter of 1663?
It was partly a matter of timing. Charles II tried to liberalize religious tolerance in England after the Restoration in 1660 but Parliament was bent on revenge after the 20-year disruption by Puritans and would not relent. So when Charles was petitioned by Newport’s John Clarke to allow Rhode Island to engage in a “lively experiment in religious discernments,” he gladly allowed it. His signing of the Charter amazed Parliament and Rhode Islanders alike, for opposite reasons. Parliament was aghast over the extent of the liberties he granted Rhode Island, while the settlers were delighted to be the first colony in North America to be free of the constrictions of the Church of England.
You maintain that Newport was one of the five most important cities in America during the Colonial era. Why Newport?
For about 30 years before 1776, Newport was one of the five most active and most profitable seaports in America. Trade with other colonies and with England was robust, shipbuilding was a major industry. Newport’s merchants had taken advantage of the town’s open culture to employ first-rate artisans, who had mostly come to Newport to escape religious and social strictures in surrounding colonies.The Townsend and Goddard families were producing some of the finest furniture in America or Europe ( below, the 1760s Goddard mahogany block front desk and bookcase, sold at Sotheby’s in 1989 for what would be $33 million in today’s dollars, a record price to date for a piece of American furniture sold at auction.)
Newport was one of the most important and influential towns in the New World because people were free to worship as they pleased, without direction or penalty from the civil sector. That atmosphere was a magnet for creative, free-thinking settlers who were responsible for making Newport so successful.
The most surprising things you learned from writing Newport, A Lively Experiment?
I knew little about Newport before writing the book except for having a vague notion about the splendor of the Gilded Age mansions. What surprised me was learning about the richness of the Colonial era, where the ideas about individual freedoms were conceived and fought for, when church and state were separated, when Newport’s commercial acumen was tested, when some citizens felt strongly enough about learning that they built the Redwood Library, when the beautiful landscaping we see today was planted, when involvement in the arts was in full swing, when one of the oldest family-run businesses in America, the John Stevens Shop of stone engravers, was founded in 1707. The Colonial era, also called the Golden Age, took on a special resonance.
If you had to single out one chapter as your favorite, which is it and why?
It’s a toss-up between Chapter 1, which details the rebelliousness of the founders, those individualists who would not conform to the suffocating demands of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Chapter 8, which chronicles the height of Newport’s influence during the Gilded age of 1880 to 1914. The people who built their mansions along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive were the opposite of the Colonial radicals – they were the Establishment of America, the ones who set trends and did pretty much whatever they liked, they were proper and strictly corralled by their social norms, and the families like the Astors, Vanderbilts, and others were intensely competitive. Just look at the grand houses they erected as symbols of their importance.
Newport has always been elastic, able to entertain conflicting mores and attitudes. Newport could be home to both types, it could always exist and prosper with this dichotomy – rich and poor, rabble-rouser and obedient citizen, adventurer and corporate clone.
What are some iconic Newport sites of today that have significance with earlier history?
The original Thames and Spring streets were laid out in 1639 as a reaction against the staid and orderly Congregational town-plans of Massachusetts, and Newport’s streets have always been chaotic. The Point section retains its Quaker look and feel three and a half centuries later.
William Brenton’s Hammersmith Farm from 1640 (the oldest continuously operating farm on Aquidneck Island) has been divided over the centuries and part of it was home to the Auchincloss family in the mid-twentieth century, famous as the summer home of Jacqueline Kennedy.
The architect Peter Harrison designed the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Brick Market and Touro Synagogue in the mid-eighteenth century, buildings that influenced the future of American architecture and are still vital today. The Redwood Library ( below) was actually the first public building in our country designed in the Palladian style.
And then, of course, there are the grand mansions along Bellevue Avenue that defined luxury and opulence during the Gilded Age. Those buildings are in a class by themselves and have been well-maintained and presented by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
Today, access to one of Newport’s most popular sites (and unique in this country), Cliff Walk, was originally mandated by the Charter of 1663. Discuss…
The 1663 Charter specifically allows access to the ocean by all residents of Rhode Island for fishing and the gathering of seaweed. When the Cliff Walk was etched out of the rock formations in the 19th century, some homeowners (Vanderbilts, Belmonts, and other oligarchs) along its path tried to have it closed off to assure their privacy. The public cried foul. Many legal challenges have been lodged in order to limit availability, but they have all been rejected by Rhode Island courts, and Cliff Walk continues to remain open to all.
There are many amusing and titillating anecdotes in your overview of the history of Newport. One I single out is (p. 389) Ward McAllister (nicknamed “Mr. Make-a-Lister”) who coined the phrase “Mrs. Astor’s 400” for his patron, Caroline Backhouse Astor. Who are others you’d like to note?
Caroline Astor ruled Newport and New York society from 1880 until 1908 with an iron fist. When she retired from the scene, three women with very different ideas about how society should be managed took her place. They wanted to have fun, to dispense with the extravagant 10-course, 4-hour dinners.
So the Great Triumvirate of Mamie Fish, Alva V. Belmont and Tessie Oelrichs turned Newport into an upscale amusement park for their enjoyment. They dished each other and anyone they considered too snobby. They staged balls and dinner parties, sometimes for dogs, sometimes for fake foreign nobility. The three hostesses served as the transition between high-society sensibility and a more relaxed and democratic Newport that emerged after World War I.
And my favorite anecdote….
In the summer of 1960, while Senator Jack Kennedy was campaigning to be President, he and Jackie took a few days off to spend at Hammersmith Farm with her family. Soon after their arrival, his friend Marion “Oatsie” Charles, who lived in Washington and Newport, received a phone call. “Oatsie, there’s nothing good to read here. Could you bring me something?” Mrs. Charles was also a friend of the English author Ian Fleming, who was virtually unknown to American readers at the time. So Oatsie gave Kennedy a copy of “Casino Royale,” one of Flemings first novels.
When Kennedy became President, a reporter asked about his favorite authors and JFK praised Fleming’s Agent 007. The public rushed to discover Fleming and soon he was a regular on best-seller lists. We have Oatsie Charles to thank for four decades of James Bond films and countless hours of escapism. As I’ve noted above, so many things have their start in Newport.
Thank you, Rocky, for celebrating Newport, “where the soul of America first found its mooring.”
The early Colonial era continued to intrigue Rocky so much that he then wrote Inventing Rhode Island: Six Lives (Parenthetical Press, 2014.) Available as an ebook on Amazon or Apple iBookstore.