James deWolf (continued)
Much of the success enjoyed by James deWolf was due to his political acumen. While most Rhode Islanders were strong supporters of the Federalist Party, the deWolfs favored Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans. In 1802, over the protest of John Brown, James deWolf was elected to the General Assembly as a representative from Bristol. Then, as now, his enemies pounced upon his past escapades. John Brown charged that, "the statement of his murdering his negroes in the smallpox to preserve the other part of his cargo... will be echoed through the papers. ...I assure that his going a deputy will, in my opinion, cause great clamor against the town as being in favor of the Guinea Trade directly in the face of the law..."
Despite the protest, deWolf was elected, supported Jeffersonian policies, and set up a Tammany Society in Bristol. The society became very popular, especially after James deWolf began providing free beer. He was able to convince Jefferson to set up an independent revenue district for Bristol and Warren and had Charles Collins, his brother-in-law who was active in the slave trade, appointed as collector. Collins blatantly cleared all deWolf vessels in the face of protests and Bristol and the deWolfs profited in the "unholy traffic" long after it was illegal in Rhode Island.
James deWolf remained active in the slave trade until 1807, when at age 41 he sailed to Africa on board his favorite ship, Andromache. In 1803, he gave his wife a pair of slaves as a Christmas present and they remained in the deWolf family for many years. They were loyal to the deWolfs and in awe of their wealth and prestige.
In addition to the vast fortune made in the slave trade, James deWolf also realized large profits from the textile industry and from privateering. His 120 foot long brigantine, Yankee, originally built in 1808 for the slave trade, became the most successful American privateer in the War of 1812. In three years this swift vessel made six cruises and captured 41 prizes worth over three million dollars, a considerable fortune at the time. On its fifth cruise, the Yankee captured a British vessel, San Jose Indiano, worth over $379,000. On this cruise. Jack Jibsheet, a Black cabin boy who received the smallest share of the prizes, was given $1121.88. This becomes more impressive when we compare it to the annual salary of $720 which was the pay that Oliver H. Perry, the great hero of Lake Erie, received during the War of 1812. It is no wonder that when the war ended in 1815, Captain Jim deWolf, at age fifty-one, was considered one of the richest men in America, second only to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland.
In 1820, deWolf became Speaker of the House in the Rhode Island General Assembly and in the following year he was appointed to the U. S. Senate to replace William Hunter of Newport. When it was learned that deWolf was instructed by Rhode Island to vote against Missouri's admission as a slave state, he came under very heavy criticism by Senator William Smith of South Carolina. Smith accused Rhode Island of hypocrisy. He pointed to the fact that deWolf, probably the man responsible for bringing more slaves into South Carolina than any other single individual, was selected to represent Rhode Island in the Senate. DeWolf's only defense was that it had been "many, many years" since he was in the slave trade and that the greater part of his fortune was earned in "honorable employment." His enemies laughed at this and pointed out that his "honorable employment" was in privateering, just one step removed from piracy.
James deWolf's brief experience in Washington was not pleasant. In 1825, he resigned as Senator and, shortly after, broke with Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party. He felt that Jackson went too far in opposing the U. S. Bank and disagreed with Jackson's policy toward protective tariffs.
James deWolf died on Christmas Eve in 1837. At that time he was one of the most respected and honored men in Bristol. He left a considerable fortune to his wife who died within two weeks of her husband. As a result, much of the money went to the support of public schools in Rhode Island, one of Mrs. deWolf's favorite philanthropic projects.
In 1842, John Dickerson, believing that much of the deWolf gold was buried in the vault with deWolf, blew the door from the tomb and plundered the casket. All he gained were Captain Jim's gold teeth, some buttons and a name plate. He sold it to a middle-man for $6.58.
Many historians believe that one of the un-stated reasons for James deWolf's resignation as U. S. Senator was to return to Rhode Island to keep an eye on his nephew, George deWolf the most irascible of all family members. The topic of a future episode of "Rogues, rascals, and pillars of society" will be General George deWolf, one of Rhode Island's most infamous scoundrels.
This ship, the San Jose Indiano, was captured by the Yankee during the War of 1812 bringing a great fortune to deWolf and the Yankee crew. Captain Jim later renamed the ship the General Jackson and used it in the whale fishery trade.