Of the fifty states of the American Union, none can boast the title of “the most American” better than the smallest state with the longest name: “The State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.” Rhode Island is indeed the historic pattern for the American Republic.
Our civilization has its deepest roots not only in Greece and Rome, but also in Christianity. Until the Edict of Milan (also known as the Edict of Toleration), Christians were subject to persecution for the practice of their faith. During the latter part of the Fourth Century, Christianity itself became the state religion and other religious faiths became the subject of restriction and prohibitions. In 1534, the Church of England separated itself from the papacy, as had the Eastern Orthodox Church five hundred years previously. The Church of England, by retaining the episcopacy and apostolic succession, as well as the sacramental system of Catholicism, displeased the separatist and Puritan element of England and caused a large exodus of them to New England in 1620 (the Pilgrims) and in 1630 and later (the Puritans). Being freed themselves from the restrictions and prohibitions of the Anglican Establishment did not, unfortunately, make the Puritans liberal toward those with whom they disagreed. A Congregationalist Establishment displaced an Anglican Establishment in New England. Those who disagreed were subject to fines, imprisonment, public whipping, banishment and hanging.
Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, in his Oxford History of the American People, coupled the Reverend Roger Williams, a Cambridge graduate, with William Penn as the “most beloved of Colonial founders.” The gentle Mr. Williams led a small band of men and women, who in 1636 founded the city of Providence and shortly thereafter the first Baptist Church in the New World. It is still open for worship. The “first woman to play a leading role in American History,” according to Admiral Morison, was Anne Marbury Hutchinson. She led a group of Antinomians (who emphasized faith over works and, Quaker-like, believed in direct personal revelations from God) in the founding of Portsmouth in 1638. A year later, John Coddington led a group in founding Newport. In 1642, Samuel Gorton settled Warwick. Then in 1645, Reverend Samuel Newman led a company of his followers to Rehoboth. This settlement would later become known as Rumford/East Providence.
In 1647, these towns founded the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Providence, Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick. It was in the year 1647 when John Coggeshall served as the first President of the Colony, when the first General Assembly met, and when the Code of Laws and the Seal of the Colony were adopted.
Some touch of that dramatic quality which belongs to the cities of Greece and Italy recurs in this little republic on Narragansett Bay … — James Bryce
This quotation from the distinguished jurist, statesman and author, James Bryce, heads the chapter, “The Dawn of American Art” in Mrs. Elliott’s charming book, This Was May Newport. That chapter deals with such residents of the city as John Smibert the painter, the renowned philosopher George Berkeley, Dean of Londonderry Cathedral and later Bishop of Cloyne, the cabinetmakers of the Townsend and Goddard families, the horologist William Clagett, the silversmith Arnold Collins, the miniaturists Edward Greene Malbone and Washington Allston, and the incomparable Gilbert Stuart. In Colonial America there were truly only five cities: Newport, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Beginning even before the American Revolution, the great planters of the Old South summered in Newport, followed after the Civil War by families from Boston and New York, who built the so-called “cottages,” the peers of which may be found only on the estates of European nobility. From the beginning Newport was, without challenge, “America’s Social Capital.”
We believe there are numerous other facets of dramatic quality, in at least a spiritual sense, of even more importance. On the south front of the State House in Providence are inscribed these words:
To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments
In 1636, Rhode Island was the first government in history to proclaim religious liberty. Lord Baltimore’s Maryland followed in 1649 and William Penn’s Pennsylvania in the 1680s. Virginia’s disestablishment awaited Thomas Jefferson and the American Revolution. Half a century later, Massachusetts completed her disestablishment.
Roger Williams’ “soul liberty” was no theoretical doctrine. In 1657, when a group of Rhode Islanders, including William Coddington, Joshua Coggeshall and Nicholas Easton, founded the first Quaker Meeting in the New World, Roger Williams was opposed to them; the most drastic action he took to their detriment was to write a book against their doctrines.
It took 260 years to settle the boundaries of Rhode Island. Rufus Choate declared that its boundaries “… might as well have been marked on the north by a bramble bush, on the south by a bluejay, on the west by a hive of bees in swarming time, and on the east by five hundred foxes with firebrands tied to their tails.” WPA Guide to Rhode Island (Cambridge, 1937), p. 36. Why this state of affairs?
Unlike all the other colonies, Rhode Island had no one behind them; no royal governor, no joint stock trading company, no noble proprietor, nor the richest non-royal landowner known to history. Rhode Islanders had only God and themselves. There was no preliminary charter until 1644 and no royal charter until 1663. Perhaps even more than his espousal of religious liberty or his disapproval of infant baptism, it was Roger Williams’ assertion that not even the King of England could legitimately seize land from the Indians – its rightful owners – and grant it to Englishmen that aroused opposition. The land must be purchased. Mr. Williams lived among, and traded with, the Indians. He published a dictionary of their language. He did not have to purchase the land; the Indians gave it to him. As he beautifully phrased it, “It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love.”
No antebellum Southerner was more of a local government or states-rights man than was a Colonial Rhode Islander. Rhode Island was the first colony to abjure allegiance to his Britannic Majesty. It was the last colony to cede rights to the centralized federal government by ratifying the Constitution. It is no accident that the statue atop the State House in Providence is known as “The Independent Man.“
New England Hereditary Societies