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Economic expansion


The breaker in Rhode Island
The breaker in Rhode Island

Rhode Island, although closely linked economically to the cotton growers of the South, voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860 in an effort to maintain the Union. More than 23,000 Rhode Islanders fought for the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865). They included Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the state militia, who served briefly as commander of the Army of the Potomac.

In the decades after the Civil War, Rhode Island’s economy continued expanding. Raw cotton was scarce during the war, which encouraged investment in wool manufacturing, which became the most important economic development during the later part of the 19th century. Cotton textile production increased again after the war, but by 1900 wool industries were equally important to the state. Related industries also expanded, such as cloth dyeing and printing and the manufacture of textile machinery. The jewelry and silverware industries also grew significantly, and by 1880 Rhode Island had more jewelry and silverware workers than any other state. In addition, the production of rubber goods became economically significant.

Rhode Island’s population rose to 428,556 by 1900, largely from the flow of French-Canadians and other diverse immigrant groups into the state. The French-Canadians, who were often recruited by agents for the textile mills, settled in communities near the mills. Large waves of Italians, Portuguese, Swedes, and Eastern Europeans, especially Poles and Jews, also migrated to the state, providing a fresh source of labor for the textile mills. Between 1900 and 1910 the state’s population increased by a record 114,054 inhabitants.

By 1900 almost 70 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born or had foreign-born parents. However, business leaders descended from the Yankee pioneers continued to control Rhode Island’s politics through the Republican Party.

To ensure Yankee Republicans would continue to rule, the Republican-controlled legislature in 1901 passed the so-called Brayton Law, named after the boss of the Republican state political machine. The Brayton Law insured that even if a Democrat became governor, the state Senate would be able to reject his appointees and substitute its own. The Republicans were certain to maintain control of the Senate because strongly Republican rural areas remained overrepresented even after the legislature was reapportioned in 1909.

With the help of the Brayton Law and with the support of the large French-American population, the Republicans continued to dominate the state government, even during Democratic administrations, until the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Irish, the state’s largest ethnic group, gained firm control of the Democratic Party. "Rhode Island" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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