Rhode Island and Providence Plantation

We have noticed the flight of Roger Williams from Salem, and his wandering through the forest in search of a place to rest his head. He visited the good old chief Massasoit, who received him with great kindness, and Canonicus, who gave him a tract of land at the head of Narragansett Bay; and here on the banks of a little river he, with five followers, laid out a town and called it Providence. Soon after this William Coddington and John Clark, with a small following, settled on the little island of Rhode Island, then called Aquednok, which they purchased from the Indians, and founded the town of Portsmouth. These settlers were but twenty in number, but they adopted an agreement, chose Coddington governor, and put into motion the machinery of government. The Providence people had adopted a similar agreement, and thus they had two miniature independent commonwealths. These little settlements soon attracted people from Massachusetts. Mrs. Hutchinson came, and joined the Coddington settlement; but as she and Coddington could not agree, the latter left the place in 1639 and founded Newport on the same island. Newport and Portsmouth were united the next year, and Coddington was made governor. These communities were founded on the principle of absolute freedom of conscience. Most of the settlers were of the type of founders, antinomians and malcontents--men who could not endure the rigors of Puritan theology, law, and custom. In fact, their spirit of freedom was extreme, and it went wild. They could not agree among themselves, and for many years Rhode Island was the most turbulent of all the New England colonies.1

Their "soul liberty," as Roger Williams termed it, did not extend to civil matters. In Providence only heads of families could vote, all unmarried men being denied the right of suffrage. Later the suffrage was restricted to owners of land. The settlements, being without title to their land, sent Williams in 1643 to England to secure a charter. The king and Parliament being then at variance, he obtained his charter from a committee of the latter, and on his return was received with great enthusiasm. The charter was issued to the "Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England." It gave the people power to govern themselves, but was simply a charter of incorporation and contained no land grant.2 The town of Warwick had now been founded, and the four towns were united under the new charter. But the union was short-lived. Coddington, in 1648, obtained a separate charter for Portsmouth and Newport. But this action was not satisfactory, and after a bitter quarrel of several years the four towns were again united under the charter secured by Williams.

After the Restoration, however, this charter granted by Parliament was not considered valid, and in 1663 Roger Williams secured from Charles II a second charter for "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," which confirmed the privileges granted by the first, made a land grant, and provided that no one be molested "for any difference in opinion in matters of religion."3 Here was the spirit of Roger Williams embodied in constitutional law, and it grew and expanded until it covered all Christendom. But with sublime inconsistency the legislature of the colony, some time after the charter was granted, declared that "Roman Catholics shall not enjoy the rights of freemen." So liberal was this charter and so devoted to it were the people that it remained in force until after the Dorr Rebellion of 1842. Connecticut and Rhode Island enjoyed greater freedom of government than any other of the American colonies. They were called "two little republics embosomed within a great empire."4

The colony of Rhode Island was never popular among its neighbors. As Doyle says, "Rhode Island was to New England what New England as a whole was to the mother country"--an outcast child that in the end brought glory to the parent state. The colony was excluded from the confederacy of 1643, and, moreover, it was harassed for years by the claims upon its territory by Massachusetts and Connecticut. But the people were plucky and they successfully defended their rights, and in spite of external encroachments and internal dissensions the colony grew in strength and importance, and its trade extended in every direction.


1Winsor, Vol. III. p. 337; Lodge, p. 389. Return
2See Poore, Vol. II, pp. 15-94. Return
3See Poore, Vol. II, pp. 15-94. Return
4Chalmer's "Introduction," Vol. I, p. 109.Return

History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter IV, pp. 115-117
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh


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