Organizing A Democracy

My soul’s desire was to do the natives good, and to that end to have their language (which I afterwards printed), and therefore I desired not to be troubled with English company,” said Roger Williams in 1677, referring to the founding of Providence Plantations. He planned to serve the Indians as a social missionary, living among them; it was not his purpose to found a colony or a state. Yet he yielded to the urgent requests of other souls troubled by persecution as his was, and made Providence a refuge for those ostracized by neighboring colonies. He soon had companions in large numbers as the theocratic establishments elsewhere cast out the heterodox, and with them faced the problem of organizing the community. Himself a victim of tyranny, of a clerico-political system in which authority was the dominating factor, of a ruthless purpose to suppress the individual in word and deed, and even in thought, it was to be expected that Roger Williams should undertake an experiment in democracy as a substitute for autocracy and theocracy, and to be expected also that the turbulent spirits who found restriction in Massachusetts and Plymouth unbearable should find it not altogether easy to adapt themselves to the new freedom in Providence Plantations.

The Lively Experiment at Providence

Democracy is the most complex and most difficult of all forms of government; at the opposite pole is autocracy, at once so much the simplest and easiest form of government as to be praised by philosophers. In an autocracy the citizen has no duty other than active and passive, unreasoned obedience; in a democracy he carries the responsibility of governing himself and others, his fellow-citizens. He must master himself, and control and curb his impulses, in order that he may assert the mastery necessary for success in the complex relation that exists when governor and governed are identified in the same persons. Autocracy tends to be effectual in its utter ruthlessness, and men admire it for its power and brilliancy, and for the protection it affords; democracy is less efficient, so inefficient sometimes that men almost despair and long for a Caesar or a Napoleon, but it is safer for the individual. In an autocracy the individual is submerged and overwhelmed; in a democracy he finds freedom and wins mastery as he learns to reconcile impulse with reason, and license with liberty. Providence Plantations in the seventeenth century conducted perhaps the most “lively experiment” in democracy that the world has ever known. It was democracy without precedent, a unique type of individual liberty, novel in its conception and almost fascinating in its development. Small wonder that Puritan critics, viewing Providence from without, and observing startling innovations and departures from conventionalities, believed that “the devil was not idle,” and mistook a psychological intoxication arising from deep draughts of a new and potent liberty for physical inebriation. In .he end democracy justified the hopes of its fondest advocates, though they, too, were mystified sometimes by its almost amazing problems. Roger Williams once lamented that he had “reaped nothing but grief and sorrow and bitterness” from his venture. And Sir Harry Vane, addressing all the inhabitants of the colony of Rhode Island, in 1654, said: “Are there no wise men amongst you? No public, self-denying spirits, that at least, upon the grounds of public safety, equity and prudence, can find out some way or means of union and reconciliation for you amongst yourselves, before you become a prey to common enemies, especially since this state [England] …. gives you freedom, as supposing a better use would have been made of it than there hath been?”

Roger Williams at the beginning planned a system of land holding that avoided the economic error of communism, characteristic of ideal societies and found fallacious and impractical at Jamestown and Plymouth. He anticipated in the seventeenth century the American ideal of the husbandman attached to the soil as an individual land owner rather than as a tenant, the latter a relation that survived in Europe the crumbling of the feudal system with the rise of national states. There the feudal baron as a political officer was succeeded by the economic landlord. Roger Williams might have become landlord of the domain which he purchased from the Indians; he chose to apportion and distribute it to his companions in exile and those who came later and were admitted to fellowship or freemanship in the society. Probably early in 1636, he purchased a tract of land, the rather indefinite boundaries of which corresponded somewhat roughly with the boundary lines of the city of Providence in 1930. This was described in a confirmatory deed made by the Indians two years after the purchase and dated March 24, 1637-1638, as “ye land and meadows upon the two fresh rivers called Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket …. from the river and fields at Pawtucket, the great hill of Neutaconkanut on the northwest, and the town of Mashapaug on the west.” What purpose lay behind the motion to obtain a confirmatory deed from the Indians is not clear from record or contemporary explanation in letter or diary, although it may be assumed from the litigation with respect to land titles in Providence that continued for almost the first century of the town’s history, that those who later were to challenge Roger Williams and to bring about an abandonment of his original plan were active so early as 1638, and that their persuasion and their insistence upon “clearing titles” may have paved the way for this and other confirmatory deeds in later days.

The confirmatory deed conveyed to Roger Williams also “all that land from those rivers reaching to Pawtuxet River, as also the grass and meadows upon the said Pawtuxet River.” This particular provision in the confirmatory deed has been subject for vigorous controversy among Rhode Island historians, with charge of forgery and countercharge of mutilation. On the same paper, under the deed, is a memorandum dated May 9, as follows: “This was all again confirmed by Miantonomah. He acknowledged this his act and hand, up the streams of Pawtucket and Pawtuxet without limits we might have for our use of cattle. Witness hereof: Roger Williams, Benedict Arnold.” Allegation has been made that the memorandum, intended to extend the limits of the grant of land, was a forgery so far at least as the signatures of Roger Williams and Benedict Arnold are concerned. Questions as to the boundaries of the Pawtuxet lands were subjects for a tremendous volume of litigation.

Roger Williams, on October 8, 1638, granted to twelve of his associates and himself “and such others as the major part of us shall admit into the same fellowship of vote with us … . equal right and power of enjoying and disposing” the land in the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket River Valleys; and to the twelve and himself “equal right and power of enjoying and disposing the lands and grounds reaching from the aforesaid rivers unto the great river Pawtuxet, and the grass and meadows thereupon.” The consideration was thirty pounds for the Providence land, and twenty pounds for the Pawtuxet land. On the same day, October 8, 1638, the twelve grantees and Roger Williams entered into an agreement to divide the Pawtuxet lands equally, following the differentiation in the deed, which omitted reference to persons admitted to freemanship later, as in the instance of the Providence land. The Providence land was deeded to the original thirteen “and such others,” etc. The plan of Roger Williams with reference to the Providence lands is related in a confirmatory deed made by Roger Williams in 1661 and carrying release of dower right by Mary Williams. The consideration of thirty pounds was to be paid by contributions of the twelve original grantees and subsequent contributions of thirty shillings each by later comers, as town lots were assigned to them after being made freemen by vote of the company. Aside from questions as to title, many of which were quieted later by an agreement dated July 27, 1640, under which each proprietor at that time was given a deed in fee simple by the town covering his land lying within the town, the exact language used in these early deeds has historical interest only as it suggests the pretexts and causes for early quarrels and protracted litigation that vexed the inhabitants of Providence Plantations. The first town lots in Providence were laid out on the peninsula bounded east and south by the Seekonk River and west by the Providence and Moshassuck Rivers. Each lot fronted on the town street, now North Main and South Main Streets, extending back therefrom between parallel lines to Hope Street, and contained five acres. In addition to his town lot each proprietor was assigned six acres of pasture land on the common east of Hope Street, or in the Woonasquatucket Valley. An early plat shows fifty-four town lots, assigned to the original thirteen and forty-one others. The section east of Hope Street was called the common so late as 1890.

The conditions of acquiring land in Providence were admission to the company by vote of the proprietors for the time being, and payment of thirty shillings into the common fund. A grantee might sell his land to another proprietor, but not to a person not a member of the company without the consent of the latter. There was, therefore, no way by which Samuel Gorton, after his withdrawal from Portsmouth, could establish a plantation in Providence, the majority of the company being unwilling to admit him to freemanship because of his expressed hostility to compact government not supported by royal sanction. The conditions of continued ownership were occupancy and improvement. Thus Joshua Verein, whose name appears as one of those to whom home lots were assigned, removed from Providence back to Salem in 1637. Later in 1650, he asserted a claim that he had been “disinherited,” and was answered by Gregory Dexter, Town Clerk, on behalf of the town of Providence, “that if you shall come into court, and prove your right, they will do you justice.” In 1637 three proprietors were fined one shilling and sixpence each “for damage in case they do not improve their ground at present granted to them, viz.: by preparing to fence, to plant, to build, etc.”

Of the earliest proceedings in town meetings in Providence more information is found in a letter written by Roger Williams than in the fragmentary official records that have been preserved. Roger Williams wrote thus:

The condition of myself and those few families here planting with me, you know full well: we have no patent: nor doth the face of magistracy suit with our present condition. Hitherto the masters of families have ordinarily met once a fortnight and consulted about our common peace, watch, and planting; and mutual consent has finished all matters with speed and peace.

Now of late some young men, single persons (of whom we have much need), being admitted to freedom of inhabitation, and promising to be subject to the orders made by the consent of the householders, are discontented with their estate, and seek the freedom of vote also, and equality, etc. . . .

I have, therefore, had thought of propounding to my neighbors a double subscription ….

The first concerning ourselves, the masters of families, thus:

“We whose names are hereunder written …. do with free and joint consent promise each unto other that …. we will from time to time subject ourselves in active or passive obedience to such orders and agreements as shall be made by the greater number of the present householders, and such others as shall hereafter be admitted by their consent into the same privilege and covenant in our ordinary meeting. …”

Concerning those few young men, and any who shall hereafter …. desire to plant with us thus:

“We whose names are hereunder written, being desirous to inhabit in this town …. do promise to subject ourselves in active or passive obedience to such orders or agreements as shall be made from time to time, by the greater number of the present householders of this town, and such whom they shall admit into the same fellowship and privilege. …”

“Heretofore we choose one (named the officer) to call the meeting at the appointed time; now it is desired by some of us that the householders by course perform that work, as also gather votes, and see the watch go on, etc.”

The Providence Compact

There is no evidence of record or otherwise that Roger Williams carried his plan for a double subscription, or seperate subscriptions, one for married men and one for single men, into effect. The first page of the earliest record book of the town of Providence carries this compact under date of August 20, 1637:

We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active or passive obedience to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things.

This compact was signed by Richard Scott, William Reynolds, Chad Brown, John Warner, John Field, George Rickard, Edward Cope, Thomas Angell, Thomas Harris, Francis Wickes, Benedict Arnold, Joshua Winsor, and William Wickenden. The fact that Roger Williams did not sign is interpreted as indicating that the compact was subscribed by late comers principally; and the fact that it was signed by Thomas Angell and Francis Wickes, who were among the original companions of Roger Williams, is explained by the suggestion that both were minors in 1636, and had reached majority since then.

Whether or not there had been actually, as indicated by the plan outlined in the letter written by Roger Williams, an earlier compact by married men; and whether or not this was the original written agreement for government in Providence; and whether or not Roger Williams was the author of the compact, as suggested by its general similarity to the agreement proposed in his letter; and whether or not Roger Williams was the author of only part of the Providence compact, and, as has been maintained vigorously, Richard Scott or some other of the signers inserted the words “only in civil things”—these matters of controversy for antiquaries yield in significance to the purport of the Providence Compact as the first social contract for government into which the principle of complete religious liberty was written. In this aspect the Providence Compact departed from precedent; it was sui generis, original and unique. Its importance was fundamental and transcendental, and it marked the opening of a new era in the affairs of mankind. It attained to the complete separation of civil and ecclesiastical authority; it abolished theocracy. It carried democracy in politics to completion in the limitation of the authority of the state to “civil things only.” It was revolutionary, forecasting the destruction of older systems. It established the principle wanting in Greek democracy, in Roman republicanism, and in the freedom of mediaeval city states and city republics—the freedom of the individual from petty tyranny. It left the regulation of his private life to the citizen. It exalted the common man in its concession to his conscience. It forecasted the new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It contributed to American democracy the single new principle that has made it distinctive from the democracy of ancient civilizations. It originated with the people and it was carried into effect in Providence within a twelvemonth. On May 2I > *637, it was agreed that Joshua Verein, upon the breach of a covenant for restraining of the liberty of conscience, shall be witheld from the liberty of voting till he shall declare to the contrary. The fact basis for the complaint against Joshua Verein, as disclosed by other sources of information than the Providence record, was his objection to his wife’s attendance on religious meetings conducted by Roger Williams. The new freedom was already producing an unprecedented ferment in Providence, “men’s wives and children and servants claiming liberty to go to all religious meetings, though never so often or though private, upon the week days.”

That the indifference to political duties that leads citizens in modern states to refuse public office, to avoid service on juries, and to neglect to exercise suffrage is not new is demonstrated by early experience in Providence. Attendance at town meetings to participate in dispatching the business related to the common welfare became so irksome in practice that a fine was set for tardiness or absence; to prevent avoidance of the duties of “officer,” the elective official whose duty it was to call meetings, it was proposed that the office follow a regular course among the inhabitants. By 1640 the business of the town, particularly that which had to do with ending disputes over titles and boundaries, had assumed such volume that relief from town meetings was sought through an agreement, drafted by a committee consisting of Robert Cole, Chad Brown, William Harris and John Warner, to entrust routine matters to five freemen, chosen by the town in quarterly meeting, and a town clerk, elected annually. The new officers were called “disposers” and were to meet at least once each month. From any decision by the disposers an appeal could be taken to the town meeting; new freemen were to be admitted only after six days’ notice, and subject to an appeal to the town meeting. The agreement of 1640, signed by thirty-nine freemen: (1) reaffirmed “as formerly hath been

the liberties of the town, so still, to hold forth liberty of conscience”; (2) established a boundary line between the Providence and Pawtuxet lands; (3) provided for grant of title in fee simple to proprietors by deeds from the town; (4) set up compulsory arbitration to quiet disputes. Fortnightly town meetings gave way to quarterly meetings. Other matters covered by the agreement were public arbitration of cases involving private damages, this to avoid disturbance of the public peace by reprisals for revenge; general assistance by pursuit of offenders, with punishment for needless hubbub; and payment by each proprietor into the common town treasury of the balance remaining unpaid of the thirty shillings purchase price of home lots. The arrangement reduced itself practically into handling routine business by committee, with the provision for appeal by any freeman from any act of the disposers; in this there scarcely was the delegation of power that distinguishes representative government from direct government. The reaffirmation of “liberty of conscience” was significant; the new freedom in Providence might occasion disturbance, but those who had experienced soul liberty was not willing to abandon the “lively experiment.”

The Source of Authority

Disturbances occasionally attended the enforcement of the awards of arbitrators; in one instance in which Samuel Gorton and his followers, then seeking freemanship in Providence, aided the party against whom decision had been rendered, blood was shed. Thereupon a few in Providence asked protection by the Massachusetts authorities, and were advised to submit to “some jurisdiction, either Plymouth or our own.” Indeed, the legal status of government under compact without royal sanction and within the dominion claimed by the King was a matter for serious consideration. Thus, when in August, 1638, an Indian was murdered near Providence by four Plymouth colonists, and the murderers, followed by Roger Williams and a posse, were arrested at Aquidneck, Roger Williams was in a quandary as to what should be done. Should the murderers be tried at Aquidneck, where taken; or should they be tried in Providence, near the place of the crime; or was it right to send them to Plymouth, whence they had come? Roger Williams favored Aquidneck; the Aquidneck settlers favored Providence. Eventually three of the murderers, the fourth having escaped, were sent to Plymouth for trial and were hanged. Arnold, the historian, commenting upon this disposition of the matter, favored the view that the place of the crime should determine the jurisdiction for trial, following the provision to that effect in the bill of rights part of the Constitution of the United States. The essential difficulty in the matter, however, lay in the fact that the crime was committed beyond any legal jurisdiction established by royal sanction. With lawbreakers within their own boundaries Providence and Aquidneck might deal under the mutual agreements in their compacts; over lawbreakers not parties to the compacts and not submitting to the jurisdiction by entering it, their authority was more than doubtful. Had either had a royal patent, the murderers taken from places beyond any legal jurisdiction might be dealt with adequately, as are murderers at sea or pirates. The sending to Plymouth was amply justified in law, as the nearest legal jurisdiction. But the incident, and others accumulating rapidly as Massachusetts displayed a disposition to meddle in Rhode Island affairs, [1]Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut indicated the need for a patent. So far as the record discloses, the initiative for the mission on which Roger Williams went to England to obtain a patent was taken by the General Court at Newport first on November 25, 1639, when Nicholas Easton and John Clarke were directed to correspond with Sir Harry Vane; and again on September 19, 1642, when a committee of ten was directed to move for a patent.

The Government at Aquidneck

Rochambeau Memorial at Wellington Park, Newport

The Island of Aquidneck was purchased by John Clarke, William Coddington and others with the purpose of establishing a new colony beyond the jurisdiction of any other; with the purpose in view, as it had not been at Providence, the process of achieving organization and establishing a government at Pocasset was short. Under an agreement dated March 7, 1638, nineteen freemen incorporated themselves as a body politic, thus: “We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly, in the presence of Jehovah, incorporate ourselves into a body politic and as He shall help will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His holy word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.” William Coddington was elected as “Judge” on the same day that the compact was dated, the organization in this respect following Old Testament precedents among the Hebrews. The records of public meetings in 1638 and 1639 indicate an orderly, business-like procedure, including, besides provisions for laying out and assigning lots of land: (1) exclusion from freemanship and residence of persons not received “by the consent of the body” and submitting themselves to the government; (2) a requirement that every inhabitant, for the common defense, should have a musket, powder, shot, a sword, etc., at all times; (3) provision for a meetinghouse; (4) provision for a licensed inn for the entertainment of strangers with privilege granted to the innkeeper “to brew beer and to sell wines or strong waters and such necessary provisions as may be beneficial in any kind”; (5) organization of the freemen as a militia subject to call, and the appointment of sergeants and corporals; (6) the election of two treasurers; (7) the repair of roads; (8) the setting up of stocks and a whipping post; (9) the building of a jail; (10) the establishment of a plantation bakery and an assize of bread. Eight inhabitants were punished for a “riot of drunkenness at a general meeting on September 15, 1638. Military training day was observed on November 12, 1638. On January 2, 1638-1639, three Elders were elected to “assist the Judge in the execution of justice and judgment for the regulation and ordering of all offences and offenders, and for the drawing up and determining of all such rules and laws as shall be according to God, which may conduce to the good and welfare of the commonwealth. The Judge together with the Elders shall rule and govern according to the general rule of the word of God when they shall have no particular rule from God’s word by the body prescribed as a direction unto them in the case.” The Judge and Elders were accountable to the body quarterly, their actions “to be scanned and weighed by the word of Christ; and if to the body or any of them the Lord shall be pleased to dispense light to the contrary of what by the Judge and Elders hath been determined formerly, that then and there shall be repealed as the act of the body.” Nicholas Easton, John Coggeshall and William Brenton were elected as Elders. A substantial change in the form of government had been achieved; authority thereafter vested in the hands of the Judge and Elders, subject to repeal or ratification in the quarterly meeting of the body politic.

Scarcely had the new order been achieved at Pocasset, however, when the withdrawal of judge and Elders and other freemen under an agreement to establish a new plantation at Newport, dated April 28, 1639, left Pocasset for the time being without a government. Even the Pocasset. records were carried away in the exodus from the settlement. Two days later twenty- nine inhabitants, still remaining at Pocasset, signed a new compact, as follows: “We whose names are underwritten do acknowledge ourselves the legal subjects of his majesty King Charles, and in his name do hereby bind ourselves into a civic body politic unto his laws according to matters of justice.” The compact was followed by an agreement for government : “According to the true content of the foregoing, we whose names are above particularly recorded, do agree jointly or by the major voice to govern ourselves by the ruler or judge amongst us in all transactions for the space and term of one year, he behaving himself according to the terms of the same.” William Hutchinson was elected as Judge, and with him eight Assistants. Provision was made for a quarterly sessions court with jury trials, judgment in cases involving less than forty shillings to be given by the Judge and Assistants. The Newport settlers made overtures for reunion with their Pocasset brethren late in 1639, and in 1640 the reunion was accomplished, Pocasset becoming the town of Portsmouth under the new government. The Pocasset and Portsmouth records, so far as they are extant and decipherable, deal with disposition of land and administration matters principally. On August 29, 1644, after Roger Williams had obtained his patent, the Deputy Governor and two Assistants who represented Portsmouth in the colony government at Newport, were given power to call town meetings at discretion, and on November 28, 1646, a quorum for town meetings was established at not less than nine. The town of Portsmouth continued, and is a prosperous, flourishing, and progressive town in the twentieth century, but the settlement at Pocasset declined. The buildings disappeared years ago, and there was in 1930 scarcely a trace of the foundations.

The Exodus to Newport

The reason for the departure from Pocasset of William Coddington, Judge, the three Elders, the Clerk, and other freemen, including John Clarke, is not given in any public record. Overcrowding at Pocasset, the reason sometimes given, is scarcely tenable. There is nothing to indicate that religious discord was the cause. Political differences, indicated in the change from the religious tone of the early Pocasset compact to the legal tone of the second compact, is contradicted by the fact that the Newport compact resembled the second Pocasset compact in being political. The most plausible explanation is economic; a careful survey of the Island of Aquidneck had revealed disadvantages in the location at Pocasset, borne out by the subsequent abandonment of the settlement, and the wonderful commercial possibilities in the splendid closed harbor at Newport. Influential men at Pocasset, leaders, as indicated by their choice for public office, resolved to withdraw and remove to the better location without delay. On April 28, 1639, they drew up and signed at Pocasset a compact, as follows: “It is agreed by us whose hands are underwritten to propagate a plantation in the midst of the island or elsewhere; and we do engage ourselves to bear equal charges, answerable to our strength and estates, in common; and that our determinations shall be by the major voice of judge and elders, the judge to have a double voice.” On May 16 the new settlement, begun on April 30 with the building of a house by Nicholas Easton and his two sons, was named Newport, and the northern boundary was described as a line across the island five miles from Newport. The Judge and Elders elected at Pocasset continued to hold office. The settlement grew rapidly as other seceders from Pocasset and newcomers sought it; the records include the names of more than 100 men admitted as inhabitants within the brief period of one year. At Newport, as at Pocasset while the same men were freemen and officers, the records of meetings indicate effective organization and decisive action on the public business. Perhaps Coddington’s was the firm hand that held the reins firmly over his fellow-citizens; he had been an Assistant in Massachusetts when Roger Williams was on trial, and later was to attempt to set up and maintain on the Island of Rhode Island almost monarchy with himself as king, except in name, under a life commission as a proprietary governor. For the time being in Newport he was Judge with two votes in a body of four, thus needing to convince only one of the Elders to make an effective majority. As presiding officer he had power also to put questions to vote, and to gather up and count the votes. Coddington had among his associates as Elders, Nicholas Easton, John Coggeshall and William Brenton, all of whom had held office of some kind in Massachusetts, and John Clarke, physician and preacher, and later able representative of Rhode Island in England, and writer of the King Charles Charter of 1663. All of these were outstanding, able men, and except John Clarke, already experienced in public affairs.

That the reunion of Pocasset and Newport in 1640 was not accomplished merely by continued secession from one and accession to the other appears from an order entered at Newport on November 25, 1639, “that those commissioners formerly appointed to negotiate the business with our brethren of Pocasset shall give them our propositions under their hands, and shall require their propositions under their hands, with their answers and shall give reply unto it; and so shall return to the body a brief of what they therein have done.” The report of the meeting of November 25 opens thus: “By the body politic in the Island of Aquidneck inhabiting this present twenty-fifth of the ninth month, 1639, in the fourteenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King Charles,” and this recognition of sovereignty was followed by an order to Nicholas Easton and John Clarke to treat with Sir Harry Vane about the obtaining of a patent from his majesty. By the same meeting it was agreed “that as natural subjects to our prince, and subject to his laws, all matters that concern the peace shall be by those that are officers of the peace transacted; and all actions of the case or debt shall be in such courts as by order are here appointed and by such judges as are deputed heard and loyally determined.” Before this order was carried into effect by the setting up of judicial courts for the trial of private causes of action, as distinguished from the general court, which tended to become a parliamentary body, the achievement of reunion with Pocasset brought about another change in the general form of government. On March 12, 1640, representatives from Pocasset presented themselves at the general court, “desiring reunion,” and were “readily embraced.”

Reunion of Newport and Portsmouth

The “general court of election” on that day, pursuant to agreement reached with the Portsmouth settlers earlier, made provision for the election of a Governor, Deputy Governor, and four Assistants, the Governor and two Assistants for one town, and the Deputy Governor and two Assistants for the other town, and that the settlement to the north should be called Portsmouth. Officers to serve one year, or until their successors were chosen, were elected as follows: William Coddington of Newport as Governor; William Brenton of Portsmouth as Deputy Governor; Nicholas Easton and John Coggeshall of Newport, and William Hutchinson and John Porter of Portsmouth as the four Assistants. Robert Jeoffreys and William Balston as Treasurers, William Dyer as Secretary, Henry Bull as Sergeant, Jeremy Clarke as Constable for Newport and John Sanford as Constable for Portsmouth, completed the list of officers. Thus was the colony of Rhode Island, distinct from though including the towns of Portsmouth and Newport, organized. The name Aquidneck was changed to Rhode Island March 13, 1644.[2]Tradition ascribes the name Rhode Island variously to Verrazzano, a Florentine sailor in the employment of France, who visited Narragansett Bay in 1542; and to Dutch traders. Verrazzano is said to … Continue reading

The officers of the new island government were elected annually on the Wednesday following the twelfth of March at “the general court of election,” which convened alternately at Newport and Portsmouth. The general court of election included the Governor, Deputy Governor, Assistants and other officers, and such of the freemen as presented themselves. The records of early years included the names of officers and freemen in attendance. This general court of election forecasted the annual election meeting of freemen in general assembly under the Charter of 1663 until the device of proxy voting had developed into a system of state elections conducted in the towns. Parliamentary meetings of the General Court, consisting of the Governor, Deputy Governor and Assistants, were held at various times and in Portsmouth or Newport as convenience suggested, until August, 1640, when semi-annual meetings in March and September were ordered. The arrangement of meeting places to suit convenience suggested the peripatetic General Assembly of later days, and the five meeting places of the General Assembly named in the Constitution of 1842. Laws and orders passed previous to 1640 were revised by the new General Court that met in Newport on May 6, 1640; some were repealed, the others were ratified and confirmed. While this revision was similar to the modern procedure of adopting a revision and codification of statutes as a new statute, in the particular instance the action was taken to quiet questions as to succession and as to the legal status of enactments earlier than March 12, 1640, in view of the change in the government made on that day. The business of the General Court after March 12, 1640, included the routine of administrative matters that might be expected, and in addition other measures of greater historical significance. In May, 1640, a system of courts was organized, including provision for monthly sessions of trial courts with juries in each of the two towns, and quarterly sessions of the General Court as a judicial body. In August of the same year exclusive original jurisdiction of cases arising in a town was given to the trial court set up for the town, “provided that it be not in the matter of life and limb,” with appeals to the quarterly sessions of the General Court. The militia was thoroughly organized, and provision was made for a public store of powder and shot in both towns.

The General Court of Elections at Portsmouth in 1641 continued in session four days from March 16 to 19. The names of four freemen appear in the record as cancelled, with the note “these four at the court of sessions, March 16, were disfranchised, and the names to be cancelled out of the roll.” The first order of the General Court of Election, March 16 and 17 the following year, disfranchised the same freemen “of the privileges and prerogatives belonging to the body of this state,” and directed the cancellation of their names out of the record. The persons disfranchised were associates of Samuel Gorton, who had been banished from the island for contempt of the government, and subsequently joined him in the settlement at Shawomet. Perhaps the summary action of the General Court, whether it was taken in 1641 or 1642, or taken in 1641 and repeated in 1642, was intended to conclude the controversy opened by Gorton.* There was no such change in officers as might be expected if the proceedings at this session, suggestive as they were that the freemen were in control and purposed action definitely to establish certain relations between them and their officers for the time being, might be construed as the effects of a quiet but complete revolution. The body prescribed an engagement for officers before electing them, as follows: “To the execution of this office I judge myself bound before God to walk faithfully, and this I profess in the presence of God,” and it also ordered that an “oath of fidelity or some other strong cognizance” be required of all men or youth above fifteen years of age. The form of government was declared to be a “democracy.” The declaration was momentous in a time in which monarchy was the prevailing world form of government, whether it be construed as merely a resolution expressing a strong sentiment or as a warning to officers, who perhaps were over zealous, that they were no more than agents and servants of the body politic. To the latter construction the declaration lends itself if complete value is assigned to the careful statement of the function of officers that follows the declaration proper. The entire order follows:

It is ordered and unanimously agreed upon that the government which this body politic doth attend unto in this island, and the jurisdiction thereof, in favor of our Prince is a Democracy or Popular Government; that is to say, it is in the power of the body of freemen orderly assembled, or the major part of them, to make or constitute just laws, by which they will be regulated, and to depute from among themselves such ministers as shall see them faithfully executed between man and man.

Whatever may have been the occasion for adopting a resolution of this type, it certainly contained an effective antidote for concentration of power in the Judge and Assistants, whose ordinance power as a parliamentary general court between sessions of the general court of elections was otherwise not limited. The General Court adopted a declaration of liberty of conscience in the following language: “That none be accounted a delinquent for doctrine, provided it be not directly repugnant to the government or laws established.” At the General Court held in Newport in September following it was ordered “that the law of the last court made concerning liberty of conscience in point of doctrine is perpetuated.” The orderly conception of public business on the island appeared in two orders, one to establish a record of deeds and the other to establish a record of laws and public notice thereof, as follows: “That each town shall provide a town book, wherein they shall record the evidences of lands by them impropriated, and shall also have power to give forth a copy thereof, which shall be a clear evidence for them and theirs to whom it is so granted”; and “that a book shall be provided wherein the Secretary shall write all such laws and acts as are made and constituted by the body, to be left always in that town where the said secretary is not resident, and also that copies of such acts as shall be made now or hereafter at the General Courts concerning necessary uses and ordinances to be observed shall be fixed upon some public place where all men may see and take notice of them.”

A manual seal “for the state” was ordered, “the signet or engraving thereof” to be “a sheaf of arrows bound up, and in the liess or bond this motto indented: ‘Amor vincet omnia. In this order the word “state” appeared for the second of three times in the record of this meeting; the oath of office or engagement had been prescribed for “the several officers of the state.” Probably the usage was no more than the common designation of government as state; in view of the reference to the prince in the declaration of the form of government as a democracy, there probably was no forecast of the State of Rhode Island as an indep endent, sovereign state after May 4, 1776. The final action of this momentous general court of elections was a decree establishing the nature of the legal tenure of lands at Aquidneck, as follows:

It is ordered, established and decreed, unanimously, that all men’s properties in these lands of the island and the jurisdiction thereof shall be such and so free that neither the state nor any person or persons shall intrude into it, molest him in it, to deprive him of anything whatsoever that is, or shall be within that, or any of the bounds thereof, and that this tenure and propriety of his therein shall be continued to him cr his or to whomsoever he shall assign it forever.

This tenure was more than fee simple with perpetual inheritance; it protected the owner of land from confiscation by the state and from sale by civil process for the payment of debt or judgment. It might even be construed to forbid trespass by public officers, and searches even with warrant. Not until enabling legislation was enacted in 1857 was it possible to enforce a judgment to collect a debt by sale of the debtor’s land in Rhode Island, so long as the debtor remained within the colony or state.

The court of elections of 1642 forbade the sale of powder and arms of any kind to the Indians, and established a fine of forty shillings for a first offence, and for a second conviction a fine of “five pounds, half to our Sovereign Lord the King, and half to him that will sue for it.” In September of the same year it was ordered that “the freemen of the town in these town meetings shall appoint the juries for the courts, and shall have power as well to appoint the inhabitants as freemen for that service by virtue of the tenure and grant of their lands which is freehold”; that “all such freemen that do not cohabit upon the island shall have no vote or power to transacting business in our courts”; and that “no man shall be disfranchised, but when the major part of the body entire is present.” In 1641 it had been ordered that a freeman or inhabitant endeavoring “to bring in any other power than what is now established (except it be from our prince by lawful commission) shall be accounted a delinquent under the head of perjurie,” and in 1642 sales to persons outside the jurisdiction were forbidden under penalty of forfeiture. At the general court of elections on March 13, 1644, it was ordered that “the island community called Aquethneck shall be from henceforth called the Isle of Rhodes or Rhode Island.”

The statute of 1642 so far as it reserved a part of a fine for the king was unique as the first instance in Rhode Island in which there appears to have been any suggestion of an income for his majesty to be derived from his colonial empire. The statute including inhabitants not freemen in juries was not so much a relaxation of the distinction, as a measure whereby the responsibilities of citizenship that were onerous might be distributed. There is nothing in the record to indicate a purpose to make the jury a more popular agency in the sense of location nearer to the body of the inhabitants.

In the short space of four years the “state” of Rhode Island had established an efficient government in the form of a democracy, had assured justice through a system of courts with provision for trial by jury, had drawn clearly and distinctly a line between local government vested in town and town meeting and general government vested in the “state,” had established a unique tenure of land, had conserved the rights of inhabitants while establishing freemanship as a qualification for suffrage, had organized thoroughly a militia of inhabitants for the common defence, had maintained liberty of conscience, and along with the adoption of a seal, had provided an orderly system of recording deeds and laws. The meeting of the general court of elections for March 13, 1644* is the last recorded. The patent granted for Providence Plantations on the day following authorized, if it was not an expression of the will of the Earl of Warwick, a union of the towns of Providence, Warwick, Portsmouth and Newport, which was not achieved nevertheless until 1647.

Union Under Parliamentary Patent

It may be doubted seriously that there was any difficulty likely to arise in government resting upon compact without royal sanction that had not been experienced in Rhode Island before 1654, when a union of the four settlements at Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick was achieved, with Roger Williams as President. In the Providence settlement, a democracy in fact, in which government by mutual agreements reached in fortnightly meetings of masters of families had been supplemented by compulsory arbitration as a device for maintaining harmony and adjusting differences, there was scarcely sufficient authority vested in the arbitrators to enforce judgments. Power was wanting; in several instances resistance precipitated civil commotion, and in one the fact that riot and bloodshed ensued had been made a pretext by some of the inhabitants for seeking the protection of Massachusetts. While a keenly legalistic mind in Aquidneck had grasped the essential weakness involved even in the orderly government established there without sanction, as evidenced by an order in 1639 directing John Clarke and Nicholas Easton to open negotiations for a patent by correspondence with Sir Harry Vane, the problem was brought positively into focus by Samuel Gorton’s denial of authority and his challenge to the General Court which precipitated his banishment from the island for contempt and sedition. In 1642 the General Court appointed a committee, consisting of seven officers and three freemen, including John Clarke, “to consult about the procuration of a patent for the island.” Meanwhile Gorton’s attempt to locate in Providence had occasioned violent discord, his settlement in Pawtuxet had precipitated a submission by four residents there to the jurisdiction of Massachusetts, and his purchase of Warwick and removal to Shawomet had been made a pretext by Massachusetts for armed intervention and invasion and the taking of Gorton by force as a prisoner to Boston for trial.* There is no record to indicate that the committee of the General Court at Aquidneck chose Roger Williams to undertake a mission to England to obtain a patent; nor is there any mention in the town records of Providence of his authorization in town meeting to go to England on behalf of the northern settlement. No correspondence between Newport men and Providence men that indicates an agreement has been preserved. It should be noted that the silence of the records is not conclusive evidence that Roger Williams went to England, without authority; the records are evidence of what they mention, but they fail to mention a great many things that were done. Arnold asserts, and other historians agree, that “the movement was made by the colony of Aquidneck, Providence united in it, and Roger Williams was selected as agent.” He was, because of his friendship with Sir Harry Vane, perhaps the best representative that could be chosen. Yet he went without public provision for his travelling expenses, and to raise money to pay them he sold a half-interest in Prudence Island and Patience Island, which he had purchased in 1637. Because of the edict of banishment still in force in Massachusetts, he was precluded from embarking from Boston, and sailed from New Amsterdam in June or July, 1643, f° r Europe. Arriving in London, he found the city and government controlled by the Parliament, and King Charles, a fugitive from his capital, fighting to recover his throne and reduce the Parliament to submission. On March 14, 1644, Roger Williams obtained for the ‘inhabitants of the town of Providence, Portsmouth and Newport, a free and absolute charter of incorporation, to be known by the name of the Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England.” Carrying what was essentially in fact if not in form a safe-conduct permitting him to land at Boston and cross Massachusetts, Roger Williams returned with the Patent, reaching Boston on September 17, 1644, and Providence a few days later. News of his approach had reached the town, and tradition records that he was greeted on the further bank of the Seekonk, and escorted thence by fourteen canoes filled with people rejoicing because of his accomplishment.

The Charter of 1644, commonly referred to as the Parliamentary Patent or the Warwick Patent, the latter because the charter was granted under the authority of the Earl of Warwick as Lord High Admiral of the domain of the King in America, described the colony as bounded north and east by Massachusetts, east and south by Plymouth, south by the ocean, and west and northwest by the Narragansett Indians, “the whole tract extending about twenty-five English miles unto the Pequot River and country.” It recited that “divers well-affected and industrious English inhabitants of the towns” had “adventured to make a nearer neighborhood and society with the great body of the Narragansetts, which may in time by the blessing of God upon their endeavors, lay a sure foundation of happiness to all America.” It granted unto the people of the towns “full power and authority to rule themselves and such others as shall hereafter inhabit within any part of the said tract of land, by such a form of civil government as by voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of them, they shall find most suitable to their estate and condition; and, for that end to make and ordain such civil laws and constitutions …. as they, or the greatest part of them, shall by free consent agree unto; provided, nevertheless, that the said laws, constitutions …. be conformable to the laws of England so far as the nature and constitution of the place will admit.” While the words “civil government” warrant the construction sometimes placed upon them that their use precluded the establishment of theocracy and effectually guaranteed the liberty of conscience that was dear to all good Rhode Islanders, the “full power and authority to rule themselves” left no doubt that the inhabitants retained soul liberty in complete functioning. The Warwick Patent was unlike earlier American patents in that it did not create a commercial or trading corporation; it was purely and simply the authorization for the creation of a civil state, and remarkable for the unrestricted “power and authority to rule themselves.” It remained for the people themselves to put the patent completely into effect by organizing a government under its provisions, but that was found to be most difficult.

The fact that Roger Williams obtained a charter for Rhode Island under the name of Providence Plantations is probably the most convincing evidence that he did not go to England as the agent of Aquidneck. A man of his character, constantly shaming his avaricious associates by sacrifice of everything save his conscience, and generous to the extent of distributing what was his own that they might quarrel among themselves rather than with him, would not have asked that the name chosen by himself should be applied to the new colony. While the men of Aquidneck may have been chagrined that the name of Providence Plantations was given by the patent, their resentment for that reason alone is scarcely sufficient to explain their attitude of indifference if not hostility to the new order. Two other reasons existed—Coddington’s almost insatiable hunger for power and authority, and interference by Plymouth. The former had established himself securely in the government created by the reunion of Newport and Portsmouth; he had weathered the gentle revolution that had produced the declaration of March, 1641, that this “body politic is a democracy with power of the body of freemen to make or constitute just laws.” A union with the pronounced and primitive democracy at the north meant more restriction. So early as August 5, 1644, he sought alliance secretly with Massachusetts or Plymouth, writing thus to Winthrop: “Now the truth is I desire to have such alliance with yourselves or Plymouth, one or both, as might be safe for us all, I having these in trust on the island.I want counsel and strength to effect what I desire.Bury what I write in deep silence.” Massachusetts for the time being hesitated to initiate action so clearly defiant of the home government as would be a union with Aquidneck, and Coddington was advised to subject himself, which would place the responsibility upon him. Then Coddington hesitated. Plymouth, on the other hand, asserted a claim to Aquidneck which had been negatived in 1638, and sent an agent to make a house-to-house canvass on the island against acceptance of the patent. Such negative action lay within the authority granted “to rule themselves”; it would place the responsibility for failure on Aquidneck rather than Plymouth.

The Bogus Narragansett Patent

Eventually Massachusetts entered the field, setting up a claim to Providence under an extension of the Massachusetts patent alleged to have been obtained on December 10, 1643, and sent to Boston in 1645. Known as the Narragansett Patent, negotiations for it had been conducted in London by Rev. Thomas Welde and Rev. Hugh Peters. It bore the signatures of nine members of the colonial board associated with the Earl of Warwick, which was less than a majority of the eighteen members. Warwick subsequently denied that it ever had been before the board,[3]Two Rhode Island Colonial Records, 1621. a statement that warrants the assumption that the patent, if not a forgery, had been presented to members of the board individually for signature, a practice sometimes resorted to in defiance of the law that a board has no power to act except as a body when in session. Massachusetts no doubt would have made a more vigorous effort to enforce the Narragansett Patent had the shrewd and unscrupulous men in control of the government there had reasonable assurance that the instrument was valid. A message sent to Rhode Island requesting the people to “forbear the exercise of government” under the charter had elicited an answer, drafted at Newport August 6, 1645, and signed “The Colony of Providence Plantations, Henry Walton, Secretary,” which repeated the familiar declaration of liberty of conscience, and asserted a right to act under the patent.

  • First, a civil government we honor, and earnestly desire to live in, for all those good ends which are attainable thereby, both of public and private nature.
  • This desire caused us humbly to sue for a charter from our mother state. Not that formerly or now we approve and honor not your civil state and government, but as we believe your consciences are persuaded to govern our souls as well as our bodies, yourselves will say we have cause to endeavor to preserve our souls and liberties, which your consciences most necessarily deprive us of, and either cause great distractions and molestations to us at home or cause our farther removals and miseries.
  • Thirdly we cannot but wonder that being now found in the possession of government from the same authority, unto which you and we are equally subject, you should desire us to forbear the exercise of such a government without an expression from that authority directed to us. . . .
  • We see not how we may yield ourselves delinquents and liable to answer in your country, as your writing to us seems to impart, while we cast not away such noble favor and grace unto us.

The letter announced a purpose to seek counsel and advice in England. The assertion of a right resting upon the Narragansett Patent was made by Massachusetts in a letter addressed to Roger Williams under date of August 27, 1645, as follows:

We received lately out of England a charter from the authority of the High Court of Parliament bearing date November 10, 1643, whereby the Narragansett Bay and a certain tract of land wherein Providence and the Island of Quidny are included, which we thought fit to give you and our other countrymen in these parts notice of, that you may forbear to exercise any jurisdiction therein, otherwise to appear at our next General Court, to be holden on the fourth day of October, to show by what right you claim any such jurisdiction; for which purpose yourself and others your neighbors shall have free liberty to come, stay and return, as the occasion of the said business shall require.

The tone of the letter sent to Roger Williams was altogether too mild in tone to be consistent with a well-founded right and the vigorous action usually taken by Massachusetts to make might suffice where right was wanting. The reply by Roger Williams was so adequate to the situation as to terminate the correspondence; Massachusetts did not answer his letter, nor urge seriously thereafter a claim under the Narragansett Patent.

What happened in Rhode Island between September, 1644, and May 19, 1647, for the most part is matter for conjecture, resting upon other sources of information, and these fragmentary, than records. The letters signed for the “Colony of Providence Plantations assembled at Newport August 9, 1645,” by Henry Walton, “Secretary,” is suggestive that an organization was in existence on that date. Samuel Gorton, in 1646, wrote: “With all expedition an orderly and joint course was held, for the investing of the people into the power and liberties thereof unanimously, for the exercise of the authority, in the execution of laws, for the good and quiet of the people, which thing gave great encouragement unto the planters, to go on in their employments, hoping to enjoy their lawful rights and privileges without disturbance, which the Massachusetts, together with Plymouth, understanding, they go about by all means to discourage the people, by their endeavoring to weaken and invalid the authority of the Charter in the eyes of the country.” Gorton’s statement that the planters were encouraged to go on with their employments refers to himself and his associates, who left their temporary domiciles at Aquidneck and returned to Shawomet as soon as the charter was granted. His reference to “an orderly and joint course” may indicate either an orderly procedure in preparation for the achievement of an organization, or assuming the possibility of error in a word, not unusual in view of the license with respect to spelling that is characteristic of documents of the period, and that the correct rendering is “an orderly and joint court/’ that at least a preliminary organization had been achieved. The latter construction, that is that “an orderly and joint court was held” agrees with the fact that may be assumed from the signature to the letter of August 9, 1645; a reference by Roger Williams to himself as the “chief officer” of the colony, and a reference to “commissioners” in a letter written by Coddington to Winthrop November 11, 1646, which contains the following: “The commissioners have joined them (referring to Gorton and the Shawomet men) in the same charter, though we maintain the government as before.” Who were the commissioners, and by what authority did they function if there was not at least a preliminary organization? The letter of Coddington indicates that he, in pursuance of his wish for association with Massachusetts, and others with him were holding out, and delaying a perfected organization. This was postponed until 1647.

Thorough Organization in 1647

Along the Waterfront, Looking North, Jamestown

That careful preparation for the General Court of 1647 had been made by commissioners or committees is evidenced by the elaborate code of laws adopted. Complete in the sense of comprehensiveness, discreet in the sense of selection or omission of subjects relevant or irrelevant to frontier colonial conditions, reinforced with citation of English statutes, this code was not the casual product of a general meeting of freemen. Further evidence that the code had been prepared in advance appears in the vote taken early in the meeting at Portsmouth “that we do all own and submit to the laws, as they are contracted in the bulk, with the administration of justice according thereto, which are to stand in force till the next general court of elections, and every town to have a copy of them, and then to present what shall appear therein not to be suitable to the constitution of the place, and then to amend it.” There is also evidence that, while an agenda had been outlined, the program had not been prepared in advance with so much certainty that it required only ovine ratification. The instructions given by the town of Providence to ten freemen chosen to represent the town in a committee meeting of ten from each town at Newport on May 18, the day preceding the General Court, indicate that much remained to be determined. The ten freemen were given full power and authority “to act and vote for us respectively or otherwise as if we ourselves were in person for the settling of this General Court for the present, and for the composing of it into any figure for the future, as cause shall require”; to vote in the choice of general officers; to continue as ten representatives if ten should be the number chosen for each town, or to reduce the number by selection amongst themselves if a smaller number should be agreed upon. The town of Providence also instructed its representatives as to certain things wished by the town, thus: (1) a true copy of the Charter; (2) government by the common law so far as it was adaptable to conditions, “desiring to hold a correspondency with the whole colony in that model that hath been lately shown unto us by our worthy friends of the island”; (3) local autonomy in town affairs; (4) freedom in the choice of town officers, with clear definition of the jurisdiction of general and town officers; (5) an exact and orderly way for appeals to the General Court; (6) “that each town should have a charter of civil incorporation, apart, for the transaction of particular affairs.” These instructions were signed by Roger Williams as moderator. Associated with him as representatives were Gregory Dexter, William Wickenden, Thomas Olney, Robert Williams, Richard Waterman, William Field, John Green, John Smith and John Lippitt.

The general court of election “for the colony and province of Providence” of 1647 was held at Portsmouth on May 19, 20, 21. John Coggeshall was chosen as moderator, and it was found that the “major part of the colony was present, …. whereby there was full power to transact.” The General Court on this occasion was in fact a general assembly of freemen. Advantage of this was taken by an agreement that all “should set their hands to an engagement to the charter,” as evidence that it had been accepted by the body of freemen. In view of the likelihood of departures under the circumstances of so large a gathering in a small town, it was agreed “in case the assembly depart unto the number of forty, those forty shall stay and act as if the whole were present and be of as full authority,” and later it was ordered “that none shall go out of the court without leave; or if any do depart he shall leave his vote behind him, that his power remain, though his person be absent.” It was planned that the general court of election should continue to be an annual general assembly, with provision for proxy voting, thus: “Further, it is agreed, that forasmuch as many may be necessarily detained, that they cannot come to the general court of election, that then they shall send their votes sealed up unto said court, which shall be as effectual as their personal appearance.” Other meetings of the General Court were to be by delegates chosen in the towns as “a committee for the transaction of affairs there …. and such as go not, may send their votes sealed.” This and the arrangement for the general court of election annually on the first Tuesday after the fifteenth of May, “if wind and weather hinder not,” indicate a respect for personal convenience and a recognition of the difficulties of travel along the waterway that connected the otherwise widely separated settlements. The request of Providence for the common law, as already adopted on the island, was granted, and Warwick was admitted to the same privileges as Providence.

Officers were elected by paper ballot as follows: John Coggeshall of Newport, as President; Roger Williams of Providence, John Sanford of Portsmouth, William Coddington of Newport, and Randall Holden of Warwick, as Assistants; William Dyer of Newport, as General Recorder, and Jeremy Clarke of Newport, as Treasurer. The engagement of officers was unique in that it omitted swearing by oath, pledged the officer not only to fulfill the duties of his office but also not to exceed them, and was reciprocal in the sense that the officer’s engagement was followed by a pledge of the freemen to support him in the faithful performance of his duties, thus: “You, A. B-, being called and chosen unto public employment, and the office of-, by the free vote and consent of the inhabitants of the Province

of Providence Plantations (now orderly met), do, in the present Assembly, engage yourself faithfully and truly to the utmost of your power to execute the commission committed unto you; and do hereby promise to do neither more nor less in that respect than that which the colony authorized you to do according to the best of your understanding.” “We, the inhabitants of the Province of Providence Plantations being here orderly met, and having by free vote chosen you -, to public office and officers for the due administration of justice,

and the execution thereof throughout the whole colony, do hereby engage ourselves to the utmost of our power to support and uphold you in your faithful performance hereof.” The omission of an oath from the engagement is attributed to Roger Williams, rather than to Quaker influence; it sustained one of his contentions in Massachusetts. The emphasis upon the officer’s obligation not to exceed his legal power and not to usurp authority, and the reciprocal engagement by freemen to support him are characteristic of the extraordinary exemplification of the original type of democracy fashioned at this General Court. The initiative and referendum, devices used in only the most advanced form of popular government even in the twentieth century, were ordered, though not named, in the plan for government outlined at Portsmouth.

The popular initiative appears in the provision that “a case” might be propounded, agitated and fully discussed in town meeting and concluded by vote; copies sent “to the other three towns, who shall agitate the case likewise in each town and vote it, and collect the votes.” The votes were to be certified to a committee of the General Court for canvass and counting, who “finding the major part of the colony concurring in the case, it shall stand for a law till the next General Assembly of all the people, then and there to be considered whether any longer to stand yea or no.” A general court consisting of six men of each town freely chosen, also could initiate a proposal “for the public ideal and good of the whole,” and “fully debate, discuss and determine the matter among themselves,” and send it for referendum to the towns. The votes on such propositions taken in the towns were to be sealed up and sent to the General Recorder “who, in the presence of the President shall open the votes, and if the major vote determine the case, it shall stand as a law till the next General Assembly, then and there to be confirmed or nullified.”

Other matters of general colony welfare determined at this meeting included: (1) Provision for general trial courts and quarterly session courts; (2) the adoption of a “seal of the province,” to be an anchor; (3) adoption of admiralty laws, called “the Laws of Oleron; (4) an order for the raising of £100 to repay Roger Williams for his expenses involved in procuring the charter; (5) the placing of detached settlements under the jurisdiction of the towns, as follows: Prudence Island with Portsmouth, trading houses along the Bay with Newport, Pawtuxet to choose Providence, Portsmouth or Newport; (6) subjecting Dutch, French and other aliens, and English residing among them, to customs and duties on articles imported, except beaver, and excluding them from trade with the Indians; ( 7 ) forbidding the sale, gift or delivery of arms to Indians, or the repair of Indian guns by residents. With reference to the four towns the General Court ordered: (1) Town councils in each, consisting of six men; (2) town officers, including town surveyors of highways in each to mend roads and record the export of cattle, viewers of goats and swine slaughtered to record the “earmarks; (3) organization and discipline of the militia; (4) engagement of town officers by the general officer (Assistant) in the town; (5) copies of laws and orders for the towns.

The body of general laws adopted was preceded by a compact signed by the freemen, which, in spite of its brevity, might be considered a Constitution and Bill of Rights. Some of the more significant provisions follow:

  • We do jointly agree to incorporate ourselves, and so to remain a body politic …. and therefore do declare to own ourselves and one another to be members of the same body, and to have right to the freedom and privileges thereof by subscribing our names to these words following:
  • We, whose names are here underwritten, do engage ourselves to the utmost of our estates and strength, to maintain the authority and to enjoy the liberty granted to us by our charter, in the extent of it according to the letter, and to maintain each other by the same authority in his lawful right and liberty. . .
  • I* is agreed, by this present assembly, thus incorporate, and by this present act declared, that the form of government established in Providence Plantations is Democratical, that is to say, a government held by the free and voluntary consent of all or the greater part of the free inhabitants.
  • And now to the end that we may give, each to other (notwithstanding our different consciences touching the truth as it is in Jesus, whereof, upon the point we all make mention), as good and hopeful assurance as we are able, touching each man’s peaceable and quiet enjoyment of his lawful right and liberty, we do agree unto, and by the authority above said, enact, establish and confirm these orders following:
  • That no person in this colony shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his lands or liberties, or be exiled, or any otherwise molested or destroyed, but by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by some known law, and according to the letter of it, ratified and confirmed by the major part of the General Assembly lawfully met and orderly managed.
  • That no person shall (but at his great peril) presume to bear or execute any office that is not lawfully called to it, and confirmed in it; nor though he be lawfully called and confirmed, presume to do more or less than those that had power to call him, or did authorize him to do.
  • That no Assembly shall have power to constitute any laws for the binding of others, or to ordain officers for the execution thereof but such as are founded upon the charter and rightly derived from the General Assembly lawfully met and orderly managed.
  • That no person be employed in any service for the public administration of justice and judgment upon offenders, or between man and man, without good encouragement and due satisfaction from the public, either out of the common stock or out of the stocks of those that have occasioned his service; that so, those that are able to serve may not be unwilling, and those that are able and willing may not be disabled by being overburdened. And then, in case a man be called unto office by a lawful assembly and refuse to bear office, or be called by an officer to assist in the execution of his office and refuse to assist him, he shall forfeit as much again as his wages would have amounted unto, or be otherwise fined by the judgment of his peers, and to pay his fine as forfeiture, unless tbe colony or that lawful assembly release him. But in case of eminent danger, no man shall refuse.
  • …. To the end that we may show ourselves not only unwilling that our popularity should prove (as some conjecture it will) an anarchy, and so a common tyranny, but willing and exceedingly desirous to preserve every man safe in his person, name and estate; and to show ourselves in so doing to be also under authority by keeping within the verges and limits prescribed us in our charter …. we do agree…. to make such laws and constitutions so conformable, etc., or rather to make those laws ours, and better known among us; that is to say, such of them and so far as the nature and constitution of our place will admit.

Thereafter followed definitions of crimes and statements of penalties. While some of the penalties would be classified as “cruel and unusual” in this twentieth century, certain alleviations were introduced. Thus, petty treason did not involve an attaint of blood nor forfeiture of land, the familiar “The father to the bough, the son to the plow” exemption in Kent being adopted. Assault and battery were punishable, and yet “a father, master, schoolmaster, keeper, may with moderation correct those that are under them.” The code included so much of the statute of frauds as required contracts “of great amount” to be in writing and witnessed; indentures of apprenticeship or service to be recorded; avoiding fraudulent conveyances to cheat creditors; transfer of title to land by bargain and sale, written, indented, sealed and enrolled in town meeting or before the town council, and recorded. The novelty of the latter procedure lay in the public enrollment, which practically added a public announcement and record in the town procedure to the modern requirement of recording with evidence of title. Acknowledgment before a notary public or justice of the peace replaces the older procedure before town meeting or town council. Debts could be recovered by action of debt, with seizure of goods, lands or debts for the payment thereof; in default of tangible assets a schedule of installment payments was to be arranged, but no debtor was to “be sent to prison, there to lie languishing to no man’s advantage, unless he refuse to appear or stand to their order.” Marriage was made a civil contract, the banns to be published in two several meetings of the townsmen, and confirmed before the head officer of the town and entered in the town clerk’s book. Provision was made for probate of wills and administration of intestate estates.

The General Court also adopted a code of laws dealing with the organization of the government, and lawful procedure. A court of trials for the whole colony, consisting of the President and Assistants, was established, its jurisdiction including trial of cases involving serious crimes, cases certified by town councils as “weighty,” cases between town and town, or between residents of different towns, and matters not assigned to towns. The colony officers were to be chosen annually by paper ballot. “For President, Recorder, Treasurer and Sergeant, each town shall present one; . . . . for Assistant each town shall present two.” A majority elected in each instance, except that, as the Assistants were chosen one for each town, the person named by the town having the greater vote was elected. Each Assistant was a justice of the peace for his town, with power to suppress disturbance, and quell riot or unlawful assembly; he was also a town coroner. The Recorder anticipated the modern Secretary of State; he was archivist and keeper of records, with direction tu keep the original purchase deeds, the charter and other important documents “in a strong chest having four several locks annexed thereto, and that each town keep a key thereof, that so, as there is a common right and interest therein, there may be no access to them in a divided way (lest also they be divided) but with a common consent.” The Recorder was also clerk of the court. The Treasurer’s duties included collecting and holding the revenues and reporting receipts to the General Assembly. The Sergeant, required to be “an able man of estate,” performed the functions of a sheriff.

Indictment or presentment by a grand jury of twelve or sixteen “honest and lawful men” must precede trial for any capital or infamous crime. For jury service the townsmen were required to choose and send to the General Court “three of the most sufficient and least suspicious persons,” the panel to be complete and available for examination by persons interested four days before the session; and it was ordered that jurymen “be chosen by neither old men above seventy years, nor mean men, nor such as have a charter of exemption, nor an indictor, nor interested in the deliverance of an indictee.” Jury service was limited to men “clearly worth forty pounds in colony trials; to men “clearly worth twenty pounds” in town trials. Challenges of jurymen were permitted, and panels were filled up “by such among those that stand about or that live in the same town.” The practice of drawing jurymen from court loiterers (tending to become professional jurymen) was abolished subsequently in Rhode Island and in some other states. Appearance in court might be personal or by attorney, who might be the pleader’s own attorney or one of two “discreet, honest and able men for understanding chosen by the townsmen of the same town and solemnly engaged by the head officer thereof not to use any manner of deceit to beguile either court or party.” Court procedure included pleading by declaration and plea or demurrer until an issue was joined, and then a trial on the issue. The trial court was ordered, “as that which adds to the comely and commendable order of the court,” to assemble and sit in the public session at eight o’clock in the morning. The eleven o’clock assembly of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in the twentieth century follows a time schedule to accommodate attorneys, thus: Municipal police courts, eight o’clock; district courts, nine o’clock; Superior court, ten o’clock; Supreme court, eleven o’clock. An attorney may be excused by a lower court for attendance upon the session of a higher court. The General Assembly had the right to impeach and try officers of the colony and the towns. The island of Rhode Island, and the two island towns were granted “full power and authority, either jointly or apart, to constitute such particular orders, penalties and officers as may more nearly concern either town apart, or the island jointly.” The General Assembly also established a table of fees for courts and officers.

The outstanding provisions in the work of this remarkable General Court of 1647 were: (1) the declaration that the form of government is “democratical,” that is held by the free and voluntary consent of all; (2) the guarantees of liberty and property; (3) insistence on the letter of law in the definition of crimes; (4) insistence upon the charter as a limitation upon the legislative power, forecasting the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land”; (5) omission of an oath from the engagement of officers, and provision for “solemn profession” as a substitute for oath in testimony; (6) provision for the initiative and referendum; (7) the protection of liberty of conscience in these words: “These are the laws that concern all men, and these are the penalties thereof, which, by the common consent, are ratified and established throughout the whole colony; and, otherwise than thus which is herein forbidden, all men may walk as their consciences persuade them, everyone in the name of his God. And let the Saints of the Most High walk in this colony without molestation in the name of Jehovah, their God.” The organization was workable, the system of laws was essentially complete. In its achievements the General Court of Providence Plantations for 1647 has seldom been equalled, and scarcely, if ever, excelled. But the difficulties that beset this unprecedented program for democracy were not yet all of the past. Democracy is the most difficult and complex form of government; the immediate future held fresh difficulties in store for the Democratical colony incorporated at Portsmouth.

Weakness of Confederacy

The Old Eight-Winged Windmill, near Newport

The second general court of election, held at Providence on May 16, 1648, was prophetic of the storm that was gathering and soon to burst. Of the officers declared elected by the votes of those present and by proxy, only two were present and took the engagement prescribed. William Coddington had been elected as President. Against him charges were pending, and he, with William Balston, who had been elected as Assistant from Portsmouth and who also was absent, were suspended for failure to present themselves and clear themselves of the accusations against them. Under an order that in the event of the death or absence of the President, the Assistant elected for the same town from which the President was chosen should become Acting President, Jeremy Clarke, who had been elected as Assistant from Newport and also as Treasurer, for the time being held three offices. Roger Williams, elected as Assistant from Providence, was absent. He had recently removed to his trading post near Wickford, and was endeavoring there to recoup the economic losses he had incurred earlier in his unselfish and self-sacrificing devotion to the common welfare. He had not received the £100 voted at Newport the year before to reimburse him for his expenses in England. Philip Sherman of Portsmouth, elected as General Recorder, and Alexander Partridge of Newport, elected as General Sergeant, also were absent and not engaged. William Dyer, clerk of the General Court, and previously General Recorder, was continued in the latter office temporarily. Except Jeremy Clarke, all officers chosen from Newport and Portsmouth were not in attendance. Their absence did not interfere with the meeting of the General Court. For its sessions Nicholas Easton of Newport, served as Moderator and William Dyer of Newport, as Clerk. It was ordered that six men from each town should be chosen to remain after the election for the business of the General Court, others to tarry as they saw fit. From the circumstances it appeared that there was dissension on the island; the party that in Newport and Portsmouth apparently was stronger in the general election did not attend the meeting of the General Court. Some who did not agree with them attended the session at Providence. John Qarke, Jeremy Clarke, William Dyer and Nicholas Easton, who had been of Coddington’s associates in the exodus from Portsmouth to Newport in 1639, were arrayed against him in 1648. They were appointed a committee to formulate the charges against Coddington and Balston and others, possibly. The nature of the charges was not disclosed by the record; it may be that Coddington’s treasonable conspiracy to detach the island from the colony and annex it to Massachusetts or Plymouth had been disclosed.

At this meeting of the General Court the concluding clause in the engagement for officers according to the best of your understanding” was interpreted as meaning “that they are not or shall not vary from the letter of their commissions by any equivocal expositions.” The corresponding clauses in modern engagements read “faithfully and impartially and to the best of my ability. It is possible that the charges against Coddington, who had been elected as Assistant at Newport, arose from a heterodox interpretation of his duty under the clause according to the best of your understanding.” Provision for filling vacant offices by succession was made in the instances of the President, General Recorder and General Sergeant. Towns were ordered to call town meetings for the election of town officers within ten days, and freemen were named in each town except Providence to call the meetings. The laws adopted in 1647 were continued without amendment to the end of the next session of the General Court or until repealed. The colony requested permission to use the Newport prison as a colony prison. Attention was given to correspondence with Massachusetts. Rules of order for the General Court were adopted as follows:

  • The moderator shall cause the clerk of the assembly to call the names of the assembly.
  • The moderator shall appoint every man to take his place.
  • All matters presented to the assembly’s consideration shall be presented in writing by bill.
  • Each bill shall be fairly discussed, and if by the major vote of the assembly it shall be put to a committee to draw up an order, ‘which being concluded by the vote, shall stand for an order throughout the whole colony.
  • The moderator shall put all matters to vote.
  • Every man shall have liberty to speak freely to any matter propounded yet but once, unless it be by leave from the moderator.
  • He that stands up first uncovered shall speak first to the cause.
  • The moderator by the vote of the assembly shall adjourn or dissolve the court, and not without, at his great peril.
  • He that shall return not to his place at the time appointed shall forfeit sixpence.
  • They that whisper or disturb the court, or useth nipping terms shall forfeit sixpence for every fault.

Conjecture as to the cause of the dissension brewing in the colony is almost idle in view of the silence of the record. Coddington and Partridge in September, 1648, sent a written petition to the commissioners for the United Colonies, as follows: “That we, the islanders of Rhode Island, may be received into combination with all the united colonies of New England in a prime and perpetual league of friendship and amity; of offence and defence, mutual advice and succor upon all just occasions for our mutual safety and welfare, and for preserving peace amongst ourselves, and preventing as much as may be all occasions of war and difference, and to this our motion we have the consent of the major part of the island.” The petitioners were advised to submit to the jurisdiction of Plymouth. In January, 1648-1649, Coddington and his daughter sailed for England, the former to return later with a commission as Governor for life.

At a special General Assembly at Warwick in March, 1649, Roger Williams was elected as Deputy President in succession to Coddington, and town charters were granted to the four towns. Of the business transacted no record has been preserved; the information indicated above was derived from other sources. Roger Williams presided as moderator at the General Court held at Warwick on May 22, 1649. Officers were elected for the year and engaged. The General Court by committee investigated certain proxy votes, and the court adopted an order that “for the prevention of corruption of votes for the future that this clause be added to the former order made concerning votes, viz.: ‘That none shall bring any votes but such as they receive from the voters’ hands, and that all votes presented shall be filed by the Recorder in the presence of the Assembly during the time of the court. ’ Unfortunately for the curious there were no daily newspapers in 1649, f rom the columns of which one might read a complete disclosure of the nature of the corruption practiced in proxy voting. Other business of a general nature established fines for failure to accept office after election, and for substitution for the person elected by the person having the next highest number of votes; ordered towns to provide jails; ordered town magistrates to sit with general officers as part of the panel in trial courts; and directed correspondence with the Pawtuxet men about their subjection to the colony.

The fourth general court of election, held at Newport, May 23, 1650, elected officers, all of whom were engaged. The General Treasurer reported no receipts during the year, and no balance in the treasury. A new office, that of Attorney General, was created and filled. The difficulty of maintaining a quorum was indicated by the vote that if six men from each town had assembled, a majority still remaining might proceed with business, and by another authorizing a delegation of less than six appearing from any town to fill the town’s quota by selection from other freemen present. The assembly asserted its prerogative to be “a judge of its own membership” by an order that it had power to suspend and replace any member tried and found not to be a “fit member.” Various measures tending to put the colony in a posture of preparedness for defence were taken, including direction to towns to maintain public stores of powder and shot and muskets. Forecasting the modern comity that accords full faith and credit “in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state,” the General Court ordered execution on a judgment given by a Massachusetts court. Most important, as it indicated a change from direct government by assembly of the freemen to representative government, this General Court ordered each town thereafter to elect six men as members of a representative assembly “to have the full power of the General Assembly.” An order adopted, “that this present election shall stand and be authentic, notwithstanding all obstruction against it,” suggests the possibility of irregularity, or knowledge of Coddington’s errand to England and a determination to resist usurpation.

Referendum Replaces Initiative

The first representative assembly met on October 26, 1650, and repealed the provision for popular initiative adopted by the General Assembly of 1647. Instead it provided for legislation by the representative assembly subject to rejection or confirmation by popular referendum. Laws enacted by the assembly were to be certified by copies sent to the towns, and read in the towns in meetings called for the purpose; and “if any freeman shall mislike any law then made, they shall send their votes with their names fixed thereto unto the General Recorder within ten days after the reading of these laws and no longer. And if it appears that the major vote within that time prefixed shall come in and declare it to be a nullity, then shall the Recorder signify it to the President, and the President shall forthwith signify to the towns that such or such laws is a null, and the silence to the rest shall be taken for approbation and confirmation of the laws made.” The representative court was definitely ordered to “consist of six discreet, able men, and chosen out of each town for the transacting of the affairs of the commonwealth.” The quorum was established as thirteen of the twenty-four. Banishment of freemen from the colony was forbidden. Cause for divorce was limited to adultery, and then only on complaint of the injured party. Roger Williams was requested to go to England, with a promise of payment of the £100 pounds voted in 1647 and still unpaid in 1650, and an additional £100, with William Balston, John Clarke and John Warner as alternates, any two to go. John Clarke went with Roger Williams. The reason for sending Roger Williams on this mission was the wish to obtain a confirmation of the Parliamentary Patent, a measure made necessary by the aggressive meddling policy pursued by Massachusetts and Plymouth.[4] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut

The Wreck of the Confederacy

The storm portended had burst, the fate of the colony of Providence Plantations hung in balance, and the crisis called for prompt and vigorous action. The organization of a government under the Charter of 1644 had been delayed for three years, partly by international dissension and partly by interference from without. When in 1647 a union was achieved, it was harmonious only temporarily; within a year harmony had given way to discord that threatened the destruction of the government. The patience and good judgment of earnest supporters of the “lively experiment” in democracy bridged the chasm that yawned as most of the officers elected in 1648 neglected to qualify; the situation was vastly more difficult in 1650. In the course of three years from 1647 to 1650 the initial venture with pure democracy resting upon an assembly of all the freemen annually in general court, which was both elective and parliamentary, with popular initiative and popular referendum both in complete operation, had been modified. The general assembly had been replaced by a representative assembly; the popular initiative had been abandoned, and the referendum had been retained in the form of a popular veto upon acts of the representative assembly. Though these changes conformed theoretically to a progressively evolutionary series, they made possible the destruction of the General Court and the dissolution of the union of settlements under the colonial charter. The General Court was helpless when it faced after 1650 a situation that had been remedied easily in 1648. While freemen attended the General Court at discretion as members of a popular assembly, the freemen present from each town being recognized as the town’s representatives, there need be no failure to hold a general court while any reasonable number of colony-minded freemen assembled. Thus the situation in 1648, when, with one exception the officers elected from Newport and Portsmouth were not in attendance and did not qualify, was adjusted, there being enough freemen from Newport present at the session at Providence to elect both Moderator and Clerk from Newport and give the General Court a Newport complexion, in spite of the disaffection of many residents of the island. But when, after 1650, the General Court consisted of six freemen from each town, chosen in town meeting as the town’s representatives, and thirteen present were necessary to make a legal quorum, it lay within the power of two of the four towns to paralyze the General Court by refusing or neglecting to choose and send delegations. Newport and Portsmouth did not send representatives in 16^1. This defect in the representative assembly is characteristic of confederacies. The Confederation that fought the Revolutionary War through to a finish was destroyed ultimately by the indifference of the member states, and their failure to elect delegates to Congress; the union purported to be perpetual. It lies within the power of the states of the Federal Union to destroy Congress, first, by failure to elect Senators and Representatives, and the Union itself eventually, by destroying Congress. Only an ardent love for the Union resting upon vigorous national patriotism saved the United States from division in the war between the states. In 1650 there was no similar ardent love for the colony wherewith to save Providence Plantations. The General Court of October 20, 1650, marked the end of the first union between the town settlements of Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick. The union was not to be reestablished until 1654, when Roger Williams was elected as President.

Coddington Usurpation

William Coddington was not first citizen of the Island of Rhode Island in 1647, f° r th e first time since the original settlement had been made at Pocas-set in 1638. He had been elected as Judge, the highest office, under the compact signed before the settlement, and continued to hold that office at Newport after the exodus in 1639, and until in 1640 Pocasset and Newport reunited, and Coddington was elected as Governor of the island. In 1647 John Coggeshall of Newport, was elected President of the Colony of Providence Plantations, with Coddington as Assistant from Newport. Although Coddington was elected as President in 1648. charges were pending against him and he did not qualify by engagement. He had been seeking alliance or union with Massachusetts or Plymouth; his purpose was not announced when he sailed for England in January, 1649. Two years later, on April 3, 1651, he obtained from the Council of State a commission as proprietary governor of the islands of Rhode Island and Conanicut for life. In the interval between the granting of the Patent for Providence Plantations and the issuing of Coddington’s commission, King Charles I had been beheaded, the House of Lords had been abolished, the Commonwealth had been established, and the Council of State had become the executive administrative agency in England. Perhaps the incongruity of Coddington’s commission and the Parliamentary Patent may be explained as arising from the confusion attending rapid changes in the government of England; perhaps the almost utter ignorance in England of American geography may excuse an oversight in the failure to identify the island of Rhode Island with the island of Aquidneck mentioned in the earlier Parliamentary Patent; certainly Coddington was not innocent of misinterpretation. It was alleged by his contemporaries, and probably was true, that in England he claimed the island of Rhode Island by right of discovery and purchase from the Indians. The original deed from Miantonomah and Canonicus had named “William Coddington and his friends, ” and of this deed Coddington always had maintained possession. News of his purpose reached Newport, even before it was certain that he had been successful, and this aroused some of the island people to the urgent need for action. However much they might dislike association with the northern settlements, that was vastly preferable to the loss of liberty under a proprietary governor, practically a monarch. Forty-one inhabitants of Portsmouth and sixty-five of Newport urged John Clarke to go to England to obtain an annulment of Coddington’s commission. For once north and south felt somewhat the enthusiasm of a mutual interest and common enterprise. Providence and Warwick were raising money to hasten the departure of Roger Williams on his mission for confirmation of the Parliamentary Patent; Newport was interested in the annulment of Coddington’s commission. William Arnold of Pawtuxet, claiming subjection to Massachusetts, lost no time in informing the authorities there of the popularity of the subscription in Warwick and Providence, of £ 100 quickly raised in Warwick, and generous contributions by Providence freemen. Roger Williams and John Clarke sailed from Boston for England late in 1651, after experiencing some difficulty in obtaining permission to pass through Massachusetts, Williams because of the edict of banishment of 1635, and Clarke because he was persona non grata after the episode of his arrest with Crandall and Holmes in 1651.[5] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut They presented a joint petition to the Council of State, which was referred on April 8, 1652, to the committee on foreign affairs. An order permitting the colony to proceed under the charter, pending a decision, was entered, the news of this preliminary victory being conveyed in a letter from Roger Williams, which was received in September. On October 2, 1652, the Council annulled Coddington’s commission. Roger Williams and John Clarke remained in England. William Dyer brought the good news to the colony.

While Newport and Portsmouth interposed no violent obstruction to the government set up by Coddington, the latter found the situation there not altogether to his liking. Perhaps the most able and influential men on the island had united in the petition for annulment of Coddington’s commission carried to England by John Clarke. These avoided open conflict with the proprietary Governor, but he knew full well their opinions and appreciated their resentment. That he undertook to mollify them appears in his written acknowledgment under date of April 14, 1652, that he was not the sole purchaser of the island, but only one of eighteen purchasers with equal right, and his promise to deliver the original Indian deeds. The acknowledgment was recorded at Portsmouth, April 7, 1673, and supplemented by another statement at Newport, September 27, 1677, and recorded February 11, 1705. When news of the annulment of his commission reached America, Newport and Portsmouth resumed popular government of the island and conducted negotiations with Providence and Warwick which resulted ultimately in the complete renewal of colonial government in 1654. The bitterness so relentlessly continued by Massachusetts against those who resisted her government was not characteristic of Rhode Island. The records from time to time indicate the return to office of men against whom charges were preferred, some of whom had been convicted. In the instance of Coddington, he was returned by Newport as a freeman with the list for 1655; he was one of the commissioners for Newport attending the colony court in 1656; he was formally forgiven on March 17, 1656, by the court of commissioners, who ordered a letter sent to John Clarke in England declaring their “good desires and apprehensions conceived from Mr. Coddington’s demonstrations of good affection to the government, as also of our own satisfaction generally in the colony.” The letter went on to recite a wish that the government in England might abate further proceedings against Coddington, “since the evils ensued upon the distraction of those troublesome times are removed from us, and breaches amongst us are partly composed, and in a way of composing to the good and comfort of all parts of the colony and the establishing of peace and love among us.” Coddington had merited hanging for treason; yet Rhode Island pardoned him. Roger Williams was moderator. The spirit that had guided him, following persecution and banishment by Massachusetts, to plead her cause in the council of hostile Indians[6]Rhode Island Relations with the Indians was still alive in Rhode Island; and with it a marvellous respect for the opinions of a man, that could concede to Coddington, even after treason, a pardon and expression of love. Of this page in the history of the colony Rhode Islanders may well be proud. Twice under the Charter of 1663 Rhode Island elected William Coddington to be Governor. He died in office as Governor on November 1, 1678.

There was no May meeting of the general court of election in 1651. Coddington’s commission was effective, and no representatives were elected in Newport or Portsmouth. On November 4, 1651, six freemen from each of Providence and Warwick, calling themselves commissioners rather than representatives, met as a joint committee and adopted a resolution that, whereas, the Governor, Nicholas Easton of Newport, “hath of late deserted his office, and he, together with the two towns upon Rhode Island, viz.: Portsmouth and Newport, have declined and fallen off from that established order of civil government and incorporation amongst us, by means of a commission presented upon said island by Mr. William Coddington, we, the rest of the towns of the said jurisdiction, are thereupon constrained to declare ourselves …. embodied and incorporated as before.” No colony officers were chosen at the November meeting. Samuel Gorton presided as moderator, and John Greene, Jr., was clerk. The reorganization contemplated an assembly consisting of six freemen chosen in each town. A letter was sent to Philip Sherman of Portsmouth, late General Recorder, demanding of him surrender of the colony records in his possession. Orders regulating pleading and procedure in trial courts, and defining the jurisdiction of town courts and colony court were entered.

A general court of election was held at Warwick, May 18, 1652, with Samuel Gorton as moderator. A President, one Assistant each for Providence and Warwick, General Recorder, Treasurer and Sergeant were elected. The session continued three days, the business being principally a revision of practice and procedure in trial courts. The Dutch residents were forbidden to trade with the Indians, and one of the first laws forbidding slavery was enacted. Negro slavery and white binding to service were limited to ten years, except in the instance of persons under fourteen years of age, when slavery or bondage ended at age twenty-four. In October, 1652, it was ordered that no “foreigners, Dutch, French or any other nation shall be received as a free inhabitant in any of the towns” or permitted to trade with the Indians without the general consent of the colony. Slander, oral detraction or defamation, was defined as a tort, for which a civil action for damages might be maintained; it was not made a crime, a course that would have sustained a public prosecution. The Assembly spent six days late in December, 1652, trying Hugh Bewitt, the first colony Attorney General, then an Assistant from Providence, who was accused of high treason against the power and authority of England, but found the evidence against him not sufficient to warrant conviction. At the same time, on the objection of Warwick, it retracted so much of a letter sent to Roger Williams as suggested that he have himself appointed Governor for a year following his return from England, while a reorganization was undertaken. Providence Plantations did not wish a dictator, much as it was troubled with solving the perplexing problems of democracy. The last day of this session fell on Christmas Day; there was no adjournment, however, the holiday notwithstanding. Similarly the session of the General Assembly that ordered a convention to consider ratification of the Constitution of the United States ended on a Sunday; the absence of a member, who was a clergyman, on that day produced the tie, which was broken by an affirmative vote by the Governor.

Revival of Confederacy

Early in 1653, following the receipt from England of news that Coddington’s commission had been revoked, action was taken by the northern towns and the southern towns, separately, looking toward a readjustment. The northern towns proceeded on the assumption of legitimate succession by continuance; from this point of view Newport and Portsmouth might be readmitted. On the other hand, Newport and Portsmouth, as the major fraction of the severed colony, invited Providence and Warwick to join with them. About February 16, 1653,[7]The dates as given in the printed Colonial Records are misleading and at least two entries are not chronological order. William Dyer delivered in Providence and Warwick a letter signed by John Sanford, William Balston, John Porter and William Jeffries, inviting the northern towns to send representatives to a meeting to hear read letters and orders of direction alleged to have been dispatched by the English Council of State by Dyer as messenger. On February 25, 1653, the General Assembly, meeting at Pawtuxet, drew up an answer, and designated Gregory Dexter, Hugh Bewitt, Stukely Westcott, and John Townsend as messengers to deliver it on the island, and to conduct further negotiations for a joint meeting of six commissioners from each town to consider reuniting if that were approved by the letter from the Council of State. On March 1, 1653, “the colony,” this time the southern towns, assembled at Portsmouth, and ordered all officers “that were in place when Mr. Cod-dington’s commission obstructed should stand in theses places to act according to their former commissions upon the island; and the rest in the colony according as they have been annually chosen, until a new election,” which was ordered for May 17. The papers received from the Council of State were ordered delivered to Nicholas Easton, who had been elected President in 1650. The messengers appointed at Pawtuxet in February reported in March that they had been unable to obtain a reply from Newport or a copy of the letter or order of the Council of State. This was carefully guarded at Newport. Negotiations failed to achieve a joint meeting of commissioners with power to act, and in May, 1653, two general courts of election were held in Rhode Island, and the colony for the ensuing year had two Presidents and two each of other officers, one set acting in the northern towns and the other set in the southern towns.

The General Court at Providence elected Gregory Dexter as President. The General Assembly at Newport resolved “that this present assembly do conclude that they are a lawful assembly and have power to act in election and the affairs of the colony.” John Sanford was elected President. A vote that “if Providence and Warwick be pleased to act with us they may have liberty to choose the general officers for their towns” (Assistants) was repealed, when certain Providence and Warwick men appeared at the meeting on the second day; then Thomas Olney was chosen as Assistant for Providence and Randall Holden as Assistant for Warwick. Aside from the possibilities of further differences foreshadowed by the organization of two distinct governments, it happened that the colony policy with reference to the war with Holland, already underway in Europe, was radically different and bound to arouse conflict. The northern policy was defence and a stoppage of commercial intercourse, intended to operate as an embargo on supplies for the Dutch. The southern policy was aggressive. It contemplated aid for English residents of Long Island against the Dutch to the extent of sending cannon and other arms, and permitting volunteering on the island of Rhode Island; the setting up of prize courts, and the commissioning of privateers. The northern General Court protested against this action of the southern General Assembly, and gave warning of a complaint to be made to England. There is reason for believing that the danger of losing the colony to the Dutch because of divergent policies within was not without effect in producing the emphatic action taken by the home government in England to bring about a reunion. Sir Harry Vane wrote a letter under date of February 8, 1654, pleading for composition of differences for the sake of the liberty granted by England.

There was no General Assembly of the northern towns in 1654. At a General Assembly on the island a President and other officers were elected, and a committee of eight, two from each of the four towns was chosen “for the preparing a way of some course concerning our dissenting friends.” The Assistant for Providence was directed to visit Roger Williams, should the latter return from England, to receive “what orders are by him sent to the colony.” On August 31, 1654, an agreement for reunion was concluded and signed by six commissioners on behalf of each of the four towns. It provided that the proceedings of towns separately and jointly in the interval from Coddington’s commission to the reunion should remain each “on their own account,” and that the General Court or General Assembly, except for elections, should thereafter consist of six commissioners chosen by each of the four towns. A committee to revise the general laws of the colony was appointed and a special court of election was ordered for September 12, 1654, the officers to serve until the annual election in the following May. Roger Williams, who had returned from England, was elected President of the reunited colony, almost exactly ten years from the date of his landing in Boston with the Charter for Providence Plantations granted on March 14, 1644. At a meeting of the court of commissioners at Portsmouth in 1655, a letter from Oliver Cromwell under date of March 29, 1655, was read, directing the colony to proceed under its charter. Government under the charter continued without interruption for nine years, from 1654 to 1663, when King Charles II granted Rhode Island the Charter under which the colony and state were to govern themselves until 1842. As might be expected the turbulent democracy of Rhode Island, which, in the words of Gregory Dexter, had “long drunk of the cup of as great liberties as any people that we can hear of under the whole heaven,” and had “not known what an excise means,” and had “almost forgotten what tithes are; yea, or taxes, either to church or commonwealth,” was not reduced to complete harmony in 1654; it never has been. There was internal discord enough after 1654 to uphold Rhode Island’s reputation for maintaining “a lively experiment.” And, besides, there were perplexing problems arising from relations with Indians and with neighboring colonies[8]see Rhode Island Relations with the Indians and Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut to intrigue the interest of the freemen and other inhabitants.

The meeting of August 31, 1654, ordered an enrollment of the names of freemen, that is, inhabitants who had been admitted to political privileges. The lists returned by the towns in 1655 showed ninety-six in Newport, seventy in Portsmouth, forty-two in Providence, and thirty-eight in Warwick. For several years thereafter the records of meetings of the general court of election included the names of freemen admitted to the colony, indicating that a procedure had been established whereby persons who were made “free of the towns” did not attain colony freemanship until accepted by the General Court. There was no census or enumeration for the period, which would show what proportion of the population had been admitted to freemanship. It may not be assumed that the lists of freemen included all heads of families. There were, besides the freemen, large numbers of young men in the communities not admitted to freemanship; many who were “inhabitants” without political privileges; and also many who were bound out to service according to the practice of the period, whereby a debtor might become a bondservant to repay his debt. No doubt also many who reached the colony had become bondservants to repay their passage money across the Atlantic Ocean. There were also large numbers of servants, both men and women, the former not admitted to freemanship. The numbers of freemen by towns indicate that Newport was the largest town, and that Portsmouth was larger than Providence and Warwick. In view, however, of the fact that there appears to have been no rule for admission to freemanship, and no standard qualification, there may well have been so much difference in attitudes as to make the figures somewhat misleading; the greater wealth in the island towns may have produced a tendency toward aristocracy there which would effect a reduction in the proportion of freemen in total population. Besides that, the greater individual wealth probably would increase the number of servants. That Newport was the wealthiest town is shown by the apportionment of general levies when the colony undertook to raise taxes. A new engagement for officers was prescribed in 1654 in this form: “You …. do … . engage yourself faithfully and truly to the utmost of your power to execute the commission committed unto you, and do hereby promise to do neither more nor less in that respect than that which the colony have or shall authorize you to do.” Amendments in 1655 and 1661 did not change the form in essential particulars. The general court of election met annually on the Tuesday following the fifteenth day of May in successive years by turn in Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick. Town election meetings for choosing the six commissioners from each town who made up the parliamentary General Court, were held annually on the first Tuesday in May. Laws passed by the General Court were still subject to veto by referendum of the freemen. While the records contain nothing that would indicate the annulment of any law by the referendum process, the freemen clung tenaciously to this procedure for curbing their parliamentary representatives. Perhaps the referendum had a more salutary effect as a preventive rather than a corrective. The referendum law of 1650 was revised in 1658 and again in 1660. The amended law of 1658 required the sending of copies of laws to the towns within ten days after the adjournment of the court, and allowed ten days for the publishing of the laws in the towns and the discussion of them. “And in case the free inhabitants of each town, or the major part of them do in a lawful assembly vote down any law, and seal up the votes and send them to the General Recorder within the said ten days, and that by the votes it doth appear that the major part of the people in each town have so disallowed it, then such a law to be in no force.” The amendment literally required a majority in each of the four towns against an act to nullify it. In 1660 a further amendment was made, which extended the time for the referendum to three months, and permitted the majority of the free inhabitants of the colony to veto the law, thus: “As also we further enact that it appearing by the return of the votes that the major part of the free inhabitants of this colony have disapproved or disannulled any such law or laws, then the said law or laws to be of no force; although any one town or other should be wholly silent therein.”

Political changes taking place in relatively rapid succession in England were reflected in the style of issuing writs and other court orders. Up to 1654 writs were issued “under the title of the liberties of England,” etc. From 1654 to 1659 writs and other process were issued “in the name of his highness the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and dominions thereto.” In 1659 the form was again changed to read in the name “of the supreme authority of the Commonwealth of England,” and in 1660, following the Restoration “in his royal majesty’s name.” In 1776 the act declaring Rhode Island’s independence substituted for the name of the King on writs “the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.’ In 1655 an oath of allegiance to the government of England was ordered administered to all inhabitants. Four courts of trial were held annually, one in each of the towns. Portsmouth and Newport were permitted to conduct local courts jointly or separately as suited their convenience; similar permission was given to Providence and Warwick. The laws were revised in 1654, and “the general bulk of laws that were in force for this colony at the time of Mr. Coddington’s commission was brought to Rhode Island were declared to be in force until repealed by a court of commissioners. Towns were ordered to provide prisons in 1654; the order was repeated two years later, and in 1658, as in the matter of courts, reciprocity between Newport and Portsmouth, and between Providence and Warwick in maintaining prisons was permitted. For the first time taxes were mentioned in the colonial record for 1655. when the General Court of commissioners was authorized to order general taxes from time to time and apportion them to the towns; the towns to make the rates and collect the taxes. For the purpose of suppressing factions, it was ordered in 1655 that the “ringleader or ringleaders of factions or divisions amongst us be sent to England for trial and punishment there. No one ever was sent.

Roger Williams in 1655 undertook negotiations with Massachusetts for the release of the Pawtuxet men from subjection to that colony. There were then only four families involved, those of Stephen Arnold, who wished release; Zachariah Rhodes, who was technically “banished” from Massachusetts as a Baptist; and William Arnold and William Carpenter. Stephen Arnold and Zachariah Rhodes were among the freemen admitted from Providence in 1658. The court of commissioners offered to arbitrate differences with the Pawtuxet men, without prejudice, in 1656. William Arnold and William Carpenter, on their request, were released by Massachusetts in 1658. It is questionable whether it was the election of Benedict Arnold, son of William Arnold, as Governor in that year which shamed his father into return to Rhode Island citizenship, so much as the depredations committed upon his property by his late associate and ally, Pomham, the Indian sachem, who felt safe at last in robbing Arnold, far away from the protection of Massachusetts, and not entitled to that of Rhode Island because of his denial of the jurisdiction of the colony. The release of Pawtuxet by Massachusetts cleared the way for effective dealing with the Indians there. Pomham was ordered to remove from Warwick by the King’s commissioners April 7, 1665. In 1657 Roger Williams preferred charges of treason against William Harris because of statements in a book written by Harris that Williams interpreted as anarchistic. The parties were heard on July 4, and on the report of a committee it was voted to send the book to England, with the charges, the committee finding passages in the book that were “both contemptuous and seditious.” The ship carrying the papers was lost at sea. Roger Williams has been critcised for inconsistency in bringing the charge of treason against Harris, who was his lifelong “loving friend” and also his most persistent opponent in the internal affairs of the town of Providence. But it is clear from the writings of Roger Williams that his unlimited belief in soul liberty and liberty of conscience did not extend to palliation of opinions that were destructive of orderly society. Harris was a pronounced individualist; after a career in the town of Providence that marked him as perhaps the most litigious inhabitant in a period when all Providence men were as litigious almost as those good old Romans who felt that they were never good citizens when not engaged in law suits, he became an outstanding leader in the attempt to deprive Rhode Island of the Narragansett Indian country.[9] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut

Restoration in England and Effect in Rhode Island

Charles II was proclaimed in Rhode Island as King on October 19, 1660, and October 21 was declared a holiday, “that all children and servants shall have their liberty for that day.” The court of commissioners on October 18 ordered a commission sent to John Clarke as agent and attorney for the colony to attend “unto the preservation of all and singular the privileges, liberties, boundaries and immunities of this colony.” In the following year Benedict Arnold, John Greene. William Dyer, Randall Holden, Samuel Gorton, and Roger Williams were named as a sub-committee, one or two to go to England as agents of the colony. It was voted to raise £200 to pay the expense of agents in England; to demand the charter of Providence Plantations from Roger Williams, and to send it and other documents to England. With the return of Charles II to the throne, the Parliamentary Patent, unless ratified by the King, was a nullity, and Rhode Island was back once more in the position of a colony without a government resting upon the sanction of the home government. The Parliament that had granted the Warwick Patent had been in rebellion against King Charles I. From the point of view of the sovereign, all that had been done by or through the Parliamentary governments were acts of rebels. Exactly the same situation had arisen in England as was suggested with reference to the Southern Confederacy in revolt against the United States. Following the Civil War an amendment to the Constitution of the United States repudiated the debts incurred by the South, and forbade repayment by Congress or any of the states. The reason was illegitimacy. So Charles II, following the Restoration, dated the year of his own reign from the beheading of his father. Rhode Island saluted him in 1660 as in the twelfth year of his reign. With reference to the years intervening, while Parliament and Cromwell were in control in England, all was blank. Rhode Island needed a new charter; there was no likelihood that the new imperialist in the person of Charles II would underwrite a document issued by the Parliament that had driven his father from his capital, and eventually had condemned him to death. Rhode Island’s course in offering to surrender the Parliamentary Patent was proper; the petition for a new charter presented by John Clarke as Rhode Island’s agent was also in order.

John Clarke, who had gone to England as agent for inhabitants of the Island towns to present their protest against the Coddington commission and to procure its revocation, remained in England. Besides practicing his profession as physician, he continued to represent the colony of Providence Plantations as occasion demanded; correspondence passed regularly between him and the officers of the colony. In 1656 he procured and sent to the colony four barrels of powder and eight barrels of shot and bullets, for which he was thanked; the assembly undertook to raise £100 to repay him. The colony also placed £200 at his disposal while he was conducting negotiations for the Charter of 1663, and ordered repayment of all his expenses and a further grant of £ 100. He may or may not have received the money; in 1676, just before his death, John Clarke claimed £400 as still due and unpaid. The colony experienced difficulty in collecting the levies laid on the towns for general colony purposes. The colony courts were sustained principally from the fees paid by litigants.

John Clarke presented two letters to his majesty’s council on behalf “of the purchasers and free inhabitants of Rhode Island and of the colony of Providence Plantations on the Narragansett Bay in New England.’’ In the first letter he recited that the petitioners “were necessitated long since for cause of conscience, with respect to the worship and service of God, to take up a resolution to quit their dear and native country,” and had emigrated to America and established a state on the basis of compact in the midst of the aboriginal inhabitants. He continued to relate the obtaining of a charter, and the setting up of government under it, and the colony’s prompt proclamation of the return of the King to his throne, as evidence of their loyalty. He prayed that “under the wing of royal protection” they might “not only be sheltered, but caused to flourish in civil and religious concernments in these remote parts of the world.” The letter was in the language of the period, with so much flattery for his majesty as to indicate the able diplomacy of John Clarke, though he was much more democrat than royalist. The second letter, while repeating much of the recital of fact and episode in the first letter, concluded with a prayer incorporating language that subsequently was repeated in the Charter: “And have it much in their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment that a flourishing civil state may stand, yea, and best be maintained, and that among English spirits, with a full liberty in religious concernments, and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles will give the best and greatest security to true sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to truer loyalty.” John Clarke asked for “a more absolute, ample and free charter of civil incorporation, whereby under the wing of your royal protection, we may not only be sheltered, but (having the blessing of the Most High superadded as from former experience we have good grounds to expect) may be caused to flourish in our civil and religious concernments in these remote parts of the world, so shall your servants take themselves greatly obliged, while they are quietly permitted with freedom of conscience to worship the Lord their God, as they are persuaded, to pray for the life of the King, even that he may live for ever and ever.” Both letters are remarkable for the emphasis placed upon religious liberty and liberty of conscience. The idea was not novel to King Charles II; he had been restored to the throne of England and Scotland following the proclamation of Breda, in which he had promised his British subjects complete religious toleration. Under date of July 8, : 663, John Clarke received from the King for Rhode Island the most liberal charter, civil and religious, ever granted by a monarch to his subjects. It established a republic in the Narragansett Bay country, with forms of government so democratic that no change of them was needed following the Rhode Island Declaration of Independence on May 4, 1776, to complete a sovereign, independent republican nation, and none was needed to make Rhode Island, through ratification of the Constitution of the United States, a state in the Federal Union meeting in every detail the requirement of “a republican form of government.”

The Charter of 1663

The Charter of 1663 recited that the petitioners for it, “purchasers and free inhabitants of our island, called Rhode Island, and the rest of the colony of Providence Plantations.pursuing, with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious and religious intentions of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship, as they were persuaded; together with the gaining over and conversion of the poor, ignorant Indian natives …. to the sincere profession and obedience of the same faith and worship did …. transport themselves out of this kingdom of England into America, but also, since their arrival there, after their first settlement amongst other our subjects in those parts, for the avoiding of discord, and those many evils which were likely to ensue upon some of those our subjects not being able to bear, in these remote parts, their different apprehensions in religious concernments, and in pursuance of the aforesaid ends, did once again leave their desirable stations and habitations, and …. did transplant themselves into the midst of the Indian natives.where, by the good Providence of God, from whom the Plantations have taken their name, upon their labor and industry, they have not only been preserved …. but have increased and prospered, ….; they having by near neighborhood to and friendly society with the great body of the Narragansett Indians, given them encouragement of their own accord, to subject themselves, their people and lands, unto us; whereby, as is hoped, there may, in time, by the blessing of God upon their endeavors be laid a sure foundation of happiness to all America.” The charter continued: “And, whereas, in their humble address, they have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments; and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty, and will lay in the hearts of men the strongest obligations to true loyalty.and because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colony cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion, according to the liturgy, forms and ceremonies of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalf,” we “have therefore thought fit, and do hereby publish, grant, ordain and declare, that our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others, any law, statute, or clause therein contained, or to be contained, usage or custom of this realm, to the contrary hereof, in any wise notwithstanding; …. and to create and make them a body politic or corporate, with the powers and privileges hereinafter mentioned.”

The charter then made certain petitioners “and all such others as now are, or hereafter shall be, admitted and made free of the company and society of our colony of Providence Plantations, …. a body corporate and politic, in fact and name, by the name of the Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England, in America.” The Charter granted complete, corporate powers, authorized a common seal, and outlined a form of government thus: “There shall be one Governor, one Deputy-Governor and ten Assistants, to be from time to time, constituted, elected and chosen, out of the freemen of the said company, for the time being, in such manner and form as is hereafter in these presents expressed, which said officers shall apply themselves to take care for the best disposing and ordering of the general business and affairs of …. the plantations thereof, and the government of the people there. And, …. we do … . appoint Benedict Arnold to be the first and present Governor of the said company, and . . . . William Brenton to be the Deputy-Governor, and …. William Boulston, John Porter, Roger Williams, Thomas Olney, John Smith, John Greene, John Coggeshall, James Barker, William Field, and Joseph Clarke, to be the ten present Assistants of the said company, to continue in the said several offices, respectively, until the first Wednesday which shall be in the month of May now next coming.” The Governor, and in his absence the Deputy-Governor, was authorized to call the company together from time to time to conduct the business and affairs of the company. Semi-annual meetings were ordered, thus: “Forever hereafter, twice in every year, that is to say, on every first Wednesday in the month of May, and on every last Wednesday in October, or oftener, in case it shall be requisite, the Assistants and such of the freemen of the said company, not exceeding six persons for Newport, four persons for each of the respective towns of Providence, Portsmouth and Warwick, and two persons for each other place, town or city, who shall be, from time to time, thereunto elected or deputed by the major part of the freemen of the respective towns or places for which they shall be so elected or deputed, shall have a general meeting or assembly, then and there to consult, advise and determine, in and about the affairs and business of the said company and plantations.”

The meeting of Governor, Deputy Governor, Assistants and freemen was designated “the General Assembly,” with power and authority (1) to change the time and place of meetings; (2) to admit freemen; (3) to elect and commission officers; (4) to make laws, statutes, orders and ordinances, “so as such laws …. be not contrary and repugnant unto, but as near as may be, agreeable to the laws of … . England, considering the nature and constitution of the place and people there”; (5) to erect courts of justice; (6) to regulate and order the way of elections to office; (7) to prescribe the boundaries of towns or cities; (8) to establish penalties for crimes and misdemeanors; (9) to regulate trade with the Indians; (10) to establish, regulate and arm the militia. The Charter ordered an annual election to be held at Newport on the first Wednesday in May, officers to be engaged by “oath or otherwise.” The company was permitted to invade the Indian country, if need be, lying within the boundaries of the colony, but not to invade the Indians lying outside; reciprocally other colonies were forbidden to invade the Indians in Rhode Island, without the knowledge and consent of Rhode Island.

The Charter preserved fishery rights for all English subjects along the coast, granted permission for emigration from England and other parts of the dominion of the King to Rhode Island, established reciprocal commercial relations between Rhode Island and the remainder of the kingdom, and granted to all subjects living and their children born in Rhode Island “all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects within any of the dominions.” The boundaries described conflicted with claims of neighboring colonies,[10] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut and were a source of controversy for many years. The territory was granted to the Governor and company “to be holden of us, our heirs and successors as of the manor of East Greenwich, in our county of Kent, in free and common socage, and not in capite nor by knight service; yielding and paying therefor …. only the fifth part of all the ore or gold or silver” found. Kent was the most favored county in the kingdom, and tenure by free and common socage was the most liberal and most honored relation between King and subject known to English law, still feudal with respect to landholding. It was practically free tenancy at fixed rent, requiring no other service, and the rent in the instance of Rhode Island was one-fifth of precious metals that might be found. To remedy the difficulties arising from the disposition of Massachusetts to forbid certain Rhode Island people who had incurred the displeasure of the Puritan colony from passing through, the Charter made it lawful for Rhode Islanders “without let or molestation, to pass and repass, with freedom, into and through the rest of the English colonies, upon their lawful and civil occasions,” and to engage in commerce with the inhabitants of other colonies.

The Charter established a republic, with a Governor and other general officers elected by the people; and a system of courts and justices created by the General Assembly. Thus the three major agencies for government—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial, although not separated in Rhode Island under the Charter—originated with the people. The lawmaking power was restricted only by the provision that legislation must not be repugnant to English law% but this restriction was minimized by the provision that permitted adaptation to the place and condition. The lawmaking power might be construed as unrestricted eventually. The Charter granted and guaranteed and safeguarded the dearest liberty of the people of Rhode Island—soul liberty and freedom to worship God according to conscience. Small wonder that the general court of commissioners on November 24, 1663, after ordering that “the letters with the broad seal thereto affixed be taken forth and read by Captain George Baxter[11]Captain Baxter brought the Charter from England. in the audience and view of all the people, which was accordingly done, and the said letters, with his majesty’s royal stamp, and the broad seal, with much gravity held up on high, and presented to the perfect view of the people,” voted “the most humble thanks of this colony unto our gracious sovereign Lord, King Charles II of England, for the high and inestimable, yea, incomparable grace and favor unto the colony.” Governor Endicott and the Council of Massachusetts had been invited to attend the joyful session of November 24, 1663, with a view to initiating better relations between the colonies, but declined the invitation. On November 25 the officers named in the new Charter, for the most part, were formally engaged, and the court of commissioners, the last under the Patent of Providence Plantations, after passing a few necessary orders to continue matters pending, adjourned sine die and forever.

Reorganization Under Charter

Old State House at Kingston

The first meeting of the General Assembly under the Charter of 1663 was held at Newport, March 1, 1664. Provision was made for courts, as required in the Charter. The referendum law was repealed with others inconsistent with the Charter, but the bulk of the laws enacted under the Patent for Providence Plantations were continued. Doubt having been suggested as to whether or not the Charter limited suffrage in the election of general officers to the deputies chosen by the towns, it was voted that “the freemen have liberty, as many of them as please, to take notice of the time and place of the said election in May next, and be personally there present, to vote in the choice of election of the said chief officers.” This order was confirmed at the election meeting in May, and the question of proxy voting was referred to a committee for consideration.

Election Machinery

Proxy voting was authorized by the October Assembly in 1664, thus: “That each freeman desiring to vote by proxies shall subscribe their names on the outside and deliver his votes sealed up into the hands of a magistrate, in the face of a town meeting lawfully called and notice given for that purpose …. which said votes shall be by such whom the General Assembly shall appoint opened and delivered forth as the respective choice of the several officers shall require; provided that this order shall no way prejudice or discourage any who desire to be personally present.” Through the proxy law the Assembly had made a near approach to the modern type of general election conducted in town and district meetings, with an official count by the state returning board. The colony seal adopted under the Patent was continued in March, 1664, but replaced in May, 1664, by a new seal described thus: “That the seal, with the motto ‘Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,’ with the word ‘Hope’ over the head of the anchor, is the present seal of the colony.” Block Island had been included in the colony by the Charter; no objections on the part of the inhabitants being interposed, the island was admitted, freemen were received, and, in 1672, a town under the name New Shoreham was incorporated as the sixth town, Westerly having been incorporated in 1669. The twelve general officers, Governor, Deputy Governor, and ten Assistants, were apportioned to the towns, five to Newport, three to Providence, and two each to Portsmouth and Warwick. The first election meeting of the General Assembly under the Charter was held May 4, 1664, one hundred twelve years to a day earlier than May 4, 1776, when Rhode Island declared independence. A considerable part of the business of early meetings of the General Assembly related to boundaries and disputes as to the Narragansett country.[12] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut

The Assembly in 1664 judged it “their duty to signify his majesty’s gracious pleasure vouchsafed in these words to us, verbatim, vis.: ‘That no person within the said colony at any time hereafter shall be in anyways molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any difference of opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of the said colony.’ ” A form of engagement for officers “to execute your commission, charge and office, according to the best of your skill and knowledge without partiality or affection to any, and according to the laws already established, or to be established in this colony: This engagement you make and engage to observe under the penalty of perjury,” was prescribed.

Development of Bicameral Assembly

So early as 1664 the question as to whether the General Assembly created by the Charter was unicameral or bicameral was raised. “There having been a long agitation about the motion whether the magistrates shall sit by themselves and the deputies by themselves, it was resolved to remit the further agitation to the next General Assembly.” In 1665 the question was again postponed, and in May, 1666, it was voted that the magistrates should sit by themselves and the deputies by themselves, and “that each house so sitting have equal power and privilege in the proposing, composing and propagating any act, order and law in General Assembly; and that neither house in General Assembly shall have power without the concurrence of the major part of the other house to make any law or order to be accounted as an act of the General Assembly.” In September, 1666, the question was reopened, and postponed for further consideration to October, 1666, when it was voted that the General Assembly continue to sit as one house. On May 7, 1668, the Deputies attending a session of the General Assembly, upon motion made after organization had been completed, were permitted to withdraw for one-half hour “to consider of such affairs as they may think fit to propose for the well being of the colony”; and on the same day it was voted that “for the future the like liberty is, and shall be allowed to the deputies if they or the major part of them shall desire it, and that in the time of their absence no act shall pass as a law.” The Deputies had achieved the right to meet apart and to take council by themselves. The General Assembly continued to be unicameral, nevertheless, since action must still be taken by the body, with general officers and Deputies sitting together. The withdrawal of the Deputies permitted a caucus and agreement for concerted action if desirable.

A question essentially similar to that involving unicameral or bicameral organization was agitated in 1672. The Charter had described the General Assembly as consisting of general officers and freemen, and the quorum as consisting of “the Governor or Deputy Governor and six of the Assistants, at least to be seven.” In 1672 an act, citing this provision, continued: “His majesty’s wisdom doubtless deeming a major part of the people’s representatives would not be wanting in such needful matters, but forasmuch as oft experience proves the want of such number of Deputies, viz.: the major part in said assembly.” The act of 1672 provided that seven of the general officers and so many of the Deputies, “although there should happen not to be a major part of the Deputies,” might act for the colony in emergencies, but:

Forasmuch as by the good old laws of our native country as expressed in the Petition of Rights of third of Charles First, that the subjects of his majesty’s realm of England have inherited this freedom, that they should not contribute to any tax, but such as were by common consent in Parliament;

And forasmuch as the House of Commons is the people’s representatives there, and the Deputies the representatives of the freemen here: Therefore, for the preventing of great and eminent dangers of pretended debts, which by some men’s subtlety and others’ simplicity, this colony may unjustly and undoubtedly incur, be it enacted …. that no tax rate from henceforth shall be made, laid or levied on the inhabitants of this colony without the consent of the Deputies present pertaining to the whole colony, as there must be a major part of the Assistants (by the Charter) nor any way bring the colony in debt by any means.

And forasmuch, as there may be great and many weighty matters respecting the King’s honor here, and his subjects’ greatest liberties undermined [and] subverted, by subtlety for some men’s sinister ends, who most pretend the people’s profit thereby, but that there may be the better observation of such designs, be it enacted …. that in all weighty matters, wherein the King’s honor is most concerned, and the people’s ancient rights and liberties most jeopardized for want of mature council, that then and at all such times and upon all such occasions, the Assembly shall be the major part of the Deputies belonging to the whole colony, as there must be the major part of the Assistants (by the Charter). But otherwise, such said act (if made without the major part of the Deputies present) shall be void and of no effect.

Substantially the act required (1) the consent of the Deputies present to any proposition involving a tax, and (2) a quorum consisting of a majority of the general officers and a majority of the Deputies for measures other than those clearly necessitated by emergency. The incorporation of Westerly, 1669, and of New Shoreham, 1672, had increased the number of Deputies to twenty-two, the general officers remaining at twelve. The act of 1672 apparently urged the right of the Deputies as representatives of the freemen; on tax measures they must be polled separately. Eventually the general officers would face a situation in which, if the General Assembly remained one body, they would be outvoted decisively by the Deputies. Separation would strengthen the general officers by permitting a majority of them to veto action of a majority of the Deputies; and vice versa. Exactly the same general causes that produced a separation of Parliament in 1341 into a House of Commons and a House of Lords, produced on May 6, 1696, a separation of the Rhode Island General Assembly into two houses, one consisting of the Governor, Deputy Governor and Assistants, and the other the Deputies as representatives of the freemen in the towns.

A Royal Commission Visited Rhode Island

King Charles, in 1664, appointed a royal commission to investigate and report upon conditions in America, besides adjusting matters of controversy there that had been neglected during the distractions ensuing in England on revolution and Restoration. The commissioners confirmed for the time being the rights of Rhode Island settlers east of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly; designated the Narragansett country, a matter of dispute because of apparent conflict in the Rhode Island and Connecticut Charters, as the King’s Province, and placed it under the administration of Rhode Island; and left the eastern boundary problem in status quo with Plymouth in possession.[13] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut Two of the commissioners, who passed through Rhode Island on a journey from New York to Boston, were entertained royally in the Rhode Island fashion that later served the colony well on several occasions. On coming to Rhode Island the commissioners made five propositions on behalf of his majesty, which with modifications acceptable to both the General Assembly and the commissioners, were ratified as follows:

  1. “That all householders inhabiting this colony take the oath of allegiance, and the administration of justice be in his majesty’s name.” The General Assembly answered that the administration of justice already was in the King’s name, and, in view of the colony attitude in opposition to oaths, ordered an engagement as follows: “You, A. B., solemnly and sincerely engage true and faithful allegiance unto his majesty Charles II, King of England, his heirs and successors, to bear and do obedience unto the laws established, from time to time in this jurisdiction, according to the privilege by his said majesty granted, in religious and civil concernments to this colony in the Charter; which said engagement you make under the peril and penalty of perjury.” There was so much objection to this form of engagement “as too much touching on the conscience …. whether it happen for want of understanding the scope of the terms, or by indeed seeing somewhat that is inconsistent with religious concernments,” that the General Assembly in 1666, “being (as far as they can justify themselves therein) really willing to indulge men’s consciences,” ordered that those who preferred to do so might choose the oath of allegiance required in England, “but if any profess that there are some words in either which in conscience they cannot condescend to say or use” such person may “in words significant there declare his allegiance and submission to his majesty’s government” and may “profess seriously that they resolve and engage to yield obedience.” Such concession to the common man’s opinions is possible only in a democracy.
  2. “That all men of competent estates and civil conversation who acknowledge and are obedient to the civil magistrates, though of differing judgments, may be admitted to be freemen, and have liberty to choose and to be chosen officers, both civil and military.” The General Assembly agreed to admit all who desired freemanship, upon request and suitable proof of qualifications. This agreement between the General Assembly and the King’s commissioners is construed by some as the precedent for the property qualification for suffrage in Rhode Island. If the commissioners’ proposition may be interpreted as a suggestion that suffrage should be restricted to “men of competent estates,” then the assumption is justified in view of the nineteenth and twentieth century construction of the property qualification as a restriction upon suffrage. But the commissioners’ proposition lends itself more readily to interpretation as a suggestion that freemanship ought to be bestowed reasonably upon all persons who might qualify, and not withheld arbitrarily, which was possible and permissible under the practice prevailing in the seventeenth century. From the point of view suggested by the latter assumption, the order of May, 1665, was not tantamount to the establishing of a property qualification, so much as an acquiescence to a request by the King’s commissioners that the colony assume a more liberal attitude. In 1670 it was enacted that towns might elect to freemanship persons capable of public service, “although such person or persons may desire not to be made a freeman or freemen.” There were slackers in the seventeenth century, as there are in the twentieth century persons who fail to qualify for suffrage, or, if qualified, neglect to vote.
  3. “That all men and women of orthodox opinion, competent knowledge and civil lives, who acknowledge and are obedient to the civil magistrate, and are not scandalous, may be admitted to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and their children to Baptism, if they desire it; either by admitting them into the congregations already gathered, or permitting them to gather themselves into congregations where they may enjoy the benefits of the sacraments, and that difference in opinion may not break the bonds of peace and charity.” This proposal was made on behalf of communicants of the Ghurch of England, who experienced little of tolerance in strictly Calvinistic colonies. It was not needed in Rhode Island, and the General Assembly very graciously declared, in answer to the commissioners, that the proposal conformed to Rhode Island’s long established opinion and practice, thus: “As it has been a principle held forth and maintained in this colony from the very beginning thereof, so it is much on their hearts to preserve the same liberty to all persons within this colony forever, as to the worship of God, therein taking care for the preservation of civil government to the doing of justice, and preserving each other proprieties from wrong and violence of others.”
  4. “That all laws and expressions in laws derogatory to his majesty, if any such have been made in these late troublous times, may be repealed, altered, and taken off.” The only matters of this sort in Rhode Island were in the nature of expressions of gratefulness to the officers for the time being in control of the English government. The General Assembly assured the commissioners that the laws had been carefully revised after acceptance of the King’s Charter. Pages were cut out of certain town record books for this reason.
  5. “That this colony be put in such a posture of defence, that if there should be any invasion upon this island or elsewhere in this colony (which God forbid) you may in some measure be in a readiness to defend yourselves; or if need be, to relieve your neighbors according to the power given you by the King in your Charter and to us in this commission and instruction.” The General Assembly ordered a thorough organization of the militia, magazines for storing ammunition, and supplies of ammunition and arms.

The report of the commissioners to his majesty was very favorable to Rhode Island, including these comments additional to a record of decisions:

This colony (which now admits all religions, even Quakers and Generalists) was begun by such as the Massachusetts would not suffer to live among them, and is generally hated by the other colonies, who endeavored several ways to suppress them. . . .
The Narragansett Bay is the largest and safest port in New England, nearest the sea, and fittest for trade.
This colony hath two scattered towns upon Rhode Island, two upon the mainland, and four small villages.
Here only yet is limestone found, and here only the Governor and magistrates serve the public at their own charges. In this colony is the greatest number of Indians, yet they never had anything allowed toward the civilizing and converting of the Indian. And in this colony they have the greatest plains, but no place of strength fortified, though many places capable of fortification.
In this province also is the best English grass, and most sheep, the ground very fruitful; ewes bring ordinarily two lambs; corn yields eighty for one, and in some places they have had corn twenty-six years together without manuring.
In this province only they have not any places set apart for the worship of God, there being so many subdivided sects, they cannot agree to meet together in one place; but according to their several judgments, they sometimes associate in one house, sometimes in another.

Financial Problems

In 1666 the General Assembly addressed a petition to the King, requesting English aid in fortifying Narragansett Bay; encouragement for commerce by “some ease in some measure as to taxes upon that which is imported or exported, though but for some years”; aid for schools to be maintained among the Indians; and action favorable to Rhode Island with reference to the disposition of the King’s Province. The second request suggested the device familiar to the period of building up commerce by maintaining an occasional free port. In 1665 the General Assembly appointed the Governor, the Deputy Governor and John Clarke to visit Block Island “to see and judge whether there be a possibility to make a harbor, and what conveniences there may be to give encouragement for a trade of fishery.”

The colony was very much concerned with the matter of revenues. There was no instance of a colony tax actually enforced before 1663. The money raised to send Roger Williams and John Clarke to England following the Coddington commission had been collected principally as contributions. Difficulty was experienced in collecting the money to cover expenses and the additional grant promised John Clarke on his return after having obtained the Charter. John Clarke, as Roger Williams had been before, was reduced to straitened circumstances, and was constrained to mortgage his estate. One reason for the financial difficulty was the want of a satisfactory medium of exchange. Indian wampum, which had served reasonably the needs of the colony in trade with the Indians and amongst themselves, because it was accepted by the Indians in further trade, fell constantly in purchasing value, and eventually failed as a suitable currency. In the instance of general taxes the amount to be raised was apportioned to the several towns. There was almost continual bickering over the apportionments on the part of towns which complained that their shares were excessive. In some instances towns failed altogether to raise the quotas assigned; in other instances, because of the indifference of town officers, colony officers were directed to assist in collecting. The colony treasury, as a rule, was so bare of ready funds that frequently small sums needed immediately to pay the expenses of messengers and agents entrusted with colony business were raised by contributions of the general officers and Deputies gathered in General Assembly. When John Clarke was threatened with loss of his property through foreclosure of the mortgage which he had given to cover indebtedness incurred while he was agent in England for the colony, money to pay the mortgage was borrowed in part to persuade the mortgagee to wait for the balance, the colony guaranteed payment, and thereafter encountered difficulty in raising the money. General officers were paid no salaries; the fees collected in court in some part compensated them for expenses and services. Deputies could scarcely afford to serve. In 1666 an order was entered for the payment of Deputies attending the General Assembly, because their failure “hath not only exposed the colony to reproach and contempt among our neighbors, but hath extremely hazarded the loss of our Charter.” Fines for failure to accept office after election, and for failure to attend sessions of Assembly and court were levied.

Discord in Providence

In Providence quarrels with reference to land had begun within a short time after the founding of the settlement. These disputes concerned originally three general issues: (1) The boundaries in the original deed to Roger Williams; (2) the extent of the grant of the Pawtuxet lands, and (3) the boundary line between the original grant and the Pawtuxet grant. William Harris, one of the companions of Roger Williams, appears to have been the first to oppose the liberal disposition of the latter (1) toward the Indians with reference to a construction of the deeds which saved the Indian interest, and (2) toward the later settlers with reference to granting them land for home lots and pasturage at low prices. Harris was aggressive; perhaps some of the charges made against him by his contemporaries, including forgery of documents, deceit and trickery, swashbuckling turbulence and challenges to duels with guns or swords, etc., were not true, or were exaggerated. He was thoroughly disliked by many; and, yet, the fact that he was elected and reelected to public office indicates that he must have had a host of followers. He had strong support by Quakers. His frequent appearance in the courts of the colony eventually brought censure and a request that he undertake to reach agreements in controversies rather than plague the judges with them, the court “being wearied with the incessant clamors and complaints.” The discord in Providence reached the General Assembly as a parliamentary body in 1667, when eight presented themselves as Deputies to fill the four seats allotted to Providence, with credentials signed by two freemen, each claiming to be the town clerk. It appeared that on the day of election of Deputies William Harris, an Assistant, had refused the votes of certain freemen because they had not previously taken the engagement of allegiance to his majesty. Arthur Fenner, also an Assistant, thereupon administered the engagement, and as moderator presided over a meeting of the “major part of the freemen assembled.” Harris charged Fenner in the General Assembly with having led a riot. The General Assembly exonerated Fenner and seated the delegation elected by the majority of the freemen. The Assembly sent a letter to Providence, explanatory of its decision, and requesting “a neighborly compliance in spite of “what difference had formerly been.” The Assembly did not censure Harris for his part in the meeting at Providence, because he claimed to have been acting under a misconception of the law. Nevertheless, for calling a session of the General Assembly to try the charge of riot brought by him against Fenner, Harris was fined £50 to cover expenses and inconvenience, and discharged from his office as Assistant, “there being many grievous complaints against him not possible to be remitted so long as he continued in the office of an Assistant, he being very apt to take advantages against the members of this corporation, and to act in a deceitful manner, as will appear in the records of this colony.’ Against the fine and expulsion of Harris, William Carpenter and Benjamin Smith, both Assistants, protested. All three, Harris, Carpenter and Smith, were reelected as Assistants in 1668, and the fine against Harris was remitted, on the advice of counsel, as a conflict with the laws of England. The conflict in Providence continued. In 1669 John Clarke was instructed to undertake to quiet the trouble there. Later in the same year two sets of Deputies were returned by Providence, carrying credentials issued by two claiming to be town clerk. Neither delegation was seated, but the General Assembly sent John Easton, Joshua Coggeshall, John Coggeshall, William Vahan, and John Sanders to Providence, with instructions to call a meeting of the freemen and attempt to adjust differences, and if that could be accomplished, to call a special election meeting. Though no report of the committee has been found, it appears that the mission was not successful. A letter from Providence addressed to the March meeting of the General Assembly at Newport reported riot and violence. Thereupon four were sent to ascertain “how many and who they are of the town of Providence that are free inhabitants of the colony and have or do take the engagement to be true subjects to the King, and to conduct an election meeting. In May, 1670, Providence was represented by Deputies, and there being a question as to which of Arthur Fenner or William Harris had been elected as Assistant, Roger Williams was chosen by the Assembly. In 1671, William Harris was elected General Solicitor. In 1672, he was arrested on a charge of treason preferred by Roger Williams, and was committed to prison without bail. He had become a Quaker, and was promptly released by the incoming Quaker administration in 1672. In the controversy with Connecticut over the western boundary line of Rhode Island[14] Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut Harris took the part of Connecticut, although continuing to hold office in Rhode Island. In 1680, sailing for England, he was captured by pirates, and died shortly after reaching England. While the followers of Roger Williams and Arthur Fenner were victorious, so far as relations with the General Assembly were concerned, the Harris principles of expansion prevailed in Providence. It was inevitable that they should, in view of the increasing population, the demand for land, and the narrow boundaries prescribed by the Indian deeds as interpreted by Roger Williams. The settlement spread out, passing the older boundary lines, as new land was taken up by freeholders. Eventually the western line was run twenty miles from the river.

Popular Government in Practice

The General Assembly opened at least each annual election session with the reading of the Charter, and continued to protect and guarantee liberty of conscience and freedom of opinion. In April, 1672, a penalty was ordered for persons found guilty of opposing the collection of taxes, or criticizing the Charter, laws or General Assembly. But this assertion of “lese majesty” was short lived; in May, 1672, the earlier act was repealed as “seeming to the infringing of the liberties of the people of this colony, and setting up an arbitrary power, which is contrary to the laws of England and the fundamental laws of this colony from the very first settling thereof.” In 1673 conscientious objectors were excused from military service, including training with the militia, but holden to service in removing non-combatants and property from danger. In May, 1676, the exemption was repealed. The repealing statute was repealed and the exemption restored in October, 1676. In the following year the exemption was once more repealed, the General Assembly then restating carefully its position as to freedom of conscience, thus: “This Assembly do hereby declare that it is their full and unanimous resolution to maintain a full liberty in religious concernments relating to the worship of God, and that no person inhabiting within this jurisdiction shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, who do not actually disturb the civic peace of the colony.” The colony apparently had learned a lesson from unpreparedness in King Philip’s War. Reciting again the doctrine of liberty of conscience, the General Assembly in 1673, made Sunday a holiday “not to propagate any worship, but as to preventing debaseness,” and forbade the sale of liquor on Sunday. In 1677, on petition from Sabbatarians “that the market may be removed or changed from being on the seventh day of the week, or Saturday, it not being consistent to their opinion to be then kept,” the General Assembly “not finding it necessary to remove or change the said market, held on Saturday, do see cause and order that a market may likewise be kept on every Thursday.” The form of engagement for general officers adopted in 1677 follows: “You …. do solemnly engage true allegiance unto his majesty, …. to bear, and in your said office equal justice and right to do unto all persons, both poor and rich within this jurisdiction, to the utmost of your skill and ability, without partiality, according to the laws established in this said jurisdiction, according to the Charter, as well in matters military as civil. And this engagement you make and give upon the peril of the penalty of perjury.” The colony was generous. It remitted forfeitures freely, and in the instance of crimes carrying capital punishment as well as escheat, it restored the estate to the families if it appeared that they were without means. Although the incidents of King Philip’s War affected opinion with reference to the Indians, and brought all Indians under suspicion, no harsh measures beyond careful watching and punishment for proved offences were undertaken. When Indians were on trial in the colony court juries were drawn to include six Indians and six white men. Indian slavery was forbidden; Indian bondmen were limited to nine years’ service. In relations with the sachems extreme care was taken not to offend the dignity of the latter.

In 1677, the colony undertook to promote the establishment of a new town, the seventh, to be located at East Greenwich, in the Narragansett country. To encourage settlement town lots of ten acres each were offered to fifty freemen, with right to ninety acres west of the compact village.

The government in 1677 was republican as it conformed to the principle of representation, but democratic in fact as it emphasized the right of the freemen to veto the acts of the General Assembly by reversing party control through the ballot box. If and when the General Assembly ventured to enact a measure distasteful to the freemen, the General Assembly following the next election lost no time in repealing the obnoxious law. The officers included a Governor, Deputy Governor, ten Assistants, and other general officers, all elected in General Assembly by the freemen, those who found it inconvenient to attend the election meeting at Newport sending in their ballots by proxy. The ballots were deposited in a hat and counted in the presence of the Assembly. The parliamentary General Assembly exercising legislative powers included the Governor and Deputy Governor, the Assistants, of whom six must be present to make the quorum; and Deputies elected by the freemen in the towns. By statute it had been established that the quorum for all laws except emergency measures must include either the Governor or Deputy Governor, six Assistants and a majority of the Deputies. Tax measures were invalid unless voted by a majority of the Deputies present. Local courts were organized in the towns, but matters of weight were tried in judicial colony courts consisting of members of the General Assembly. There was no separation of powers. Indeed the frequent meetings of the General Assembly were necessitated by the combination of executive, legislative and judicial powers in one agency; and the business included executive orders, laws, and the entry of judicial decisions. The annual election meeting of the General Assembly was held at Newport on the first Wednesday in May, and other meetings of the General Assembly were held in October and at other times by adjournment or on the call of the Governor, as the nature of the business from time to time indicated convenience. The meetings were held usually in private houses or taverns; the record of an election meeting refers to the use of the kitchen as a place for counting ballots. The General Assembly was closely in contact with the people. For many reasons it was fortunate that the men who were prominent in the original settlements for the most part lived through the first forty years of the colony’s history, were almost continuously in public service through office holding, and adhered very rigidly to the fundamental principles early established.

A Summary

“This little commonwealth, whose area is 1085 square miles, is of all the American states that which has furnished the most abundant analogies to the republics of antiquity and which best deserves to have its annals treated of by a philosophical historian, wrote Bryce in “The American Commonwealth.” There is scarcely a period of forty years in history that equals in variety of experience and that will repay so well earnest examination by students of democracy as will the story of Rhode’s Island political development from 1636 to 1677. In 1636, town government in fortnightly town meeting by mutual agreement was begun in Providence. Mutual agreement yielded to majority rule, in civil matters only, and, as attendance on town meeting became onerous, administration by agents and compulsory arbitration were set up, both subject to examination by the freemen in quarterly meeting. In 1638 a government by judge and elders, resembling Old Testament Hebrew practice, was established at Pocasset. Within two years two political governments had emerged from this, and a state government styled a democracy had superseded both. In 1642 Rhode Island, then consisting of four towns, all carrying on government based on compacts, was constrained principally by the necessity for defense against neighbors, to seek a charter. Rampant individualism. strong local community interests, and jealousy, perhaps, delayed a satisfactory organization under the Charter for ten years after the granting of it. Meanwhile Rhode Island experienced most of the difficulties that beset confederacies, including the conflicting aspirations of rival governments. When in 1663 a royal Charter, notable for its extreme liberality, was obtained, Rhode Island persisted in working out its own experience very much in its own way under an assumption that the Charter authorized the utmost freedom. Through all the vicissitudes that beset the small colony, in spite of the persistent interference of neighbors, undaunted by persecution, Rhode Island adhered consistently to the original principles of freedom of opinion, liberty of conscience and faith in the common citizen.

Initiative and referendum, popular election of officers, proxy voting to accommodate electors remote from the polling place, representative government in popular general assembly, the problem of dual constituencies in a legislative body, the reconciliation of individual right with community necessity—all of these and other problems were faced, and solutions were attempted. That the colony government continued to be weak; that jealous neighboring communities sat hungrily waiting to divide the spoils of dismemberment when the “lively experiment” resulted in the destruction that was predicted by those to whom it was not given to understand the travail of democracy; that sometimes even good democrats of the type of Roger Williams and John Clarke despaired; all of these, and other things that indicate that turbulence, violence and even riot were occasionally substituted for what should have been harmony, peace and good will, were true. In the weakness of authority lay the salvation of this venture in democracy; the merit of the “lively experiment” lay principally in the fact that there w r as no authority that could suppress this exuberant venture in a freedom never before known in man’s history. In an age when mankind suffered because of strength of government, when the individual was helpless, when in neighboring colonies, called free, tyranny was practiced, there was one place where the citizen was exalted, and that was Rhode Island. If for no other reason than recognition of an ancient and honorable period in its history, Rhode Island is justified in keeping the heroic figure of the Independent Man on the pinnacle of the State House, and in preserving the inscription that circles the marble dome: “Rara temporum felicitas ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet.” The noble Roman Tacitus who penned this significant expression, “for the times an unusual happiness, that one may say what he thinks and think what he pleases,” would have found an unusual happiness had the opportunity been given him to write the history of democracy in Rhode Island, particularly in the period from 1636 to 1677.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy; vol 1 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.


1Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut
2Tradition ascribes the name Rhode Island variously to Verrazzano, a Florentine sailor in the employment of France, who visited Narragansett Bay in 1542; and to Dutch traders. Verrazzano is said to have likened Block Island to the Isle of Rhodes, thus furnishing Hezekiah Butterworth a theme for his beautiful poem, “Verrazzano.”

The Dutch traders are said to have called an island near the entrance of Narragansett Bay “Rhode Eylandt,” because of its rosy appearance. Whether the color was ascribed to the soil, or to the growth of wild roses and other flowering plants is less certain than the traditional use of the name Rhode Eylandt by the Dutch, though it appears that Conanicut was the island so named. Roger Williams as early as 1637 referred to what is now the Island of Rhode Island by the Indian name “Aquidneck,” adding, however, “called by us Rhode Island, at the Narragansett’s mouth.” That this usage of the name Rhode Island applied to the Island exclusively appears from subsequent events. Roger Williams obtained a charter for the Narragansett territory on March 14, 1644, under the name “Free Charter of Civil Incorporation and Government for the Providence Plantations, in the Narragansett Bay, in New England.”

The island settlers, at Portsmouth and Newport, first used for the island a name variously spelled with simplified phonetic, almost poetic, license as “Aquidneck,” “Aqueedneck,” “Aquethnec,” “Aquethneck,” without exhausting altogether the possibilities of actual usage or orthographic ingenuity. October 1, 1639, what was probably the first “directory” published in Rhode Island was entitled “Catalogue of such who, by the general consent of the company, were admitted to be inhabitants of the island now called Aqueedneck.” Newport and Portsmouth united in 1640 for government and undertook to obtain a royal charter for “the Body Politicke in the lie of Aquethnec.” On March 13, 16-14, the name was changed thus: “It is ordered by this Court that the island commonly called Aquethneck shall be henceforth called the Isle of Rhodes, or Rhode Island.”

In the complete absence of telegraph and radio, associated press and daily newspapers, rumor of this significant action by the island assembly did not reach Roger Williams, who obtained, and the Earl of Warwick, who signed, the charter for Providence Plantations in London on the following day. They were as completely uninformed of it as were General Andrew Jackson and General Packenham of the treaty of peace already signed when they fought the battle of New Orleans. News of the treaty probably would have deterred Packenham from attacking; it certainly would not have deterred Jackson from fighting the war to a peaceful finish, and complete victory, as he did. The restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 necessitated a fresh legal establishment; wherefore John Clarke went to England to conduct negotiations for the King Charles Charter of 1663, which used the name “Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Pi evidence Plantations, in New England, in America.”

The Act of Independence of May 4, 1776, continued usage of the name as used in the royal charter, in the provision for the substitution for the name of the king in writs and other legal process of the name “The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” On July 19, 1776, the Rhode Island Senate, then called the Upper House, concurred in an act originating in the House of Deputies, referred to as the Lower House, changing the name of Rhode Island. The vote of the Senate as recorded was :

“Vote of the Lower House declaring the Title of this Government shall be ‘The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations’ was read and concurred with this amendment, that the said Act and the Act approving the Resolution of Congress declaring the United American States free and independent States be published in the next ‘Newport Mercury’ and ‘Providence Gazette.’ ”

The name of Rhode Island appears as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” in the Constitution of the United States, which suggests the impossibility of further changes otherwise than by federal constitutional amendment.

3Two Rhode Island Colonial Records, 1621.
4, 5, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14 Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut
6Rhode Island Relations with the Indians
7The dates as given in the printed Colonial Records are misleading and at least two entries are not chronological order.
8see Rhode Island Relations with the Indians and Rhode Island’s Relations With Massachusetts And Connecticut
11Captain Baxter brought the Charter from England.

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