The Meaning of Rhode Island

“ THE meaning of Rhode Island ” implies a problem, the solution of which is attempted in every comprehensive work on American history, but which still remains a problem to those who are trying to understand the past and the present of this puzzling little commonwealth. The circumstances which led to the founding of the colony, and the conditions under which it developed during the second quarter of the seventeenth century, were most exceptional. To no other American community were offered such opportunities for experimenting with the theories of democratic government, along the lines in which progress has been made toward freedom for the individual and power for the body politic. Bancroft, picturing the development of the nation with the eye of a painter seeking the general effect, and Charles Francis Adams, sketching the details with realistic accuracy, alike see in Rhode Island the original suggestion for more of the ideas which are embodied in the present scheme of government for the United States than in any other of its constituent parts. Such a reputation demands that the history of this state shall be made known, so as to reveal why these ideas originated there, how they were experimented with, and what led to their ultimate acceptance by the nation.

The annals of Rhode Island’s formative years have been set forth with abundance of detail, and their record shows clearly that the men who projected the first settlements on Narragansett Bay fully appreciated their opportunities. They deliberately prepared the foundations for a society in which the members might enjoy the utmost individual liberty in civil and social as well as in religious affairs. It is such a society as exists to-day, more than anywhere else, in the United States of America ; which was made possible, and which was on the verge of coming into being, in the settlements at Providence and Aquidneck in 1640. The story of those two communities during the five years preceding that date is in many respects unsurpassed in interest or importance by any equal period of Colonial history. It has received from historical writers the attention it so fully merits. No community, however, and least of all an independent commonwealth, is entitled to be judged by a single half decade of its career. The friends of “ Little Rhody ” are far from asking for any such limitation of judgment. The temptation is nevertheless very strong for the historian to look at the succeeding years through the halo created by the ideas which dominated that formative period. Even Mr. Richman, searching for the truth with the broad outlook of a dweller on the prairies beyond the Mississippi, is carried by the impulse of the idyllic beginnings through half a century of rancorous squabblings over land and bloody altercations about cattle, of bitter theological recrimination and hypocritical neglect of social safeguards. Rhode Island’s part in the making of the United States is less significant than is her contribution to the more important history of human society; and the meaning of this must be sought in the periods beginning where it would be more agreeable to leave the story of colony and state.

Rhode Island has suffered because of the reputation given her by writers who have formed their opinions without taking into account two essential factors, —the development of similar ideas contemporaneously in other parts of the world, and the relation between what her people have said and what they have done. Roger Williams was in a remarkable degree, to quote Mr. Richman’s admirable phrase, “ the exponent in America of the time - spirit of Toleration.” Mr. Brigham, the librarian of the state Historical Society, in his essay on a tract which Williams published in London in 1652, presents abundant evidence to prove that the founder of Rhode Island was one of a large company of Englishmen,— undoubtedly well-nigh the foremost among them, — with Milton and Cromwell and a score of others, who believed as thoroughly as he did in the right of all men to have their own opinions regarding the best way of worshiping God. The others realized, as Williams, despite his exceptional opportunities for observing the theory in practice, apparently never realized, that most people in 1650 were not sufficiently sure of their own opinions to disregard in every-day life the opinions of their neighbors. Roger Williams also failed to perceive that the Englishmen who joined him in settling Rhode Island were among those most deeply imbued with the “time-spirit,” and that they, better than he, understood its full import. Mr. Richman shows with much skill that it was not Williams, but the general body of settlers, their ideas shaped by constant friction, who developed the practical conception of individual freedom for opinions regarding social and political, as well as religious matters. A great deal of gratitude is due to the founders of Rhode Island who put these ideas, which had been agitating men’s minds all over Europe for a hundred years, to the test of actual experiment. The experience and the example of Rhode Island were kept constantly in mind by those who were responsible for the administration of the neighboring colonies, and they, and the nation which they founded, profited inestimably by the lessons taught by Rhode Island.

It is surprising that Mr. Richman, keenly in touch as he is with contemporary tendencies in historical study, did not take advantage of his opportunity to depart from the traditional notion that the ideas of the founders constitute the substance of Rhode Island’s history. The theories practiced by Roger Williams and his fellow settlers make up an important chapter in the record of the evolution of religious, political, and social ideas. It is a chapter to which Mr. Richman contributes some noteworthy additions, chief of which is his explanation of what became of Williams, theologically, after his brief mental sojourn with the Baptists. The passages by which he is traced to the Seekers, a sect among whom he became a leader in the quest for something believable, are among the best in Mr. Richman’s many brilliant pages. But the true meaning of Rhode Island, its important contribution to the history of institutions and of society, is to be found, not in these ideas, but in the use which has been made of them. Rhode Island had a start incomparably more favorable for the development of democratic institutions than any other of the communities out of which has grown this freest of republics. She has still a reputation for freedom in speech and action beyond any of her neighbors. It is, according to the repeated statements of the man whom the people of the state have elected to be their governor, the freedom which tends to license and libertinism. These statements, and the current daily news from Rhode Island, are curiously significant commentary upon two facts in her earliest history. Providence organized itself into a government absolutely without control, restraint, or guidance from beyond its own narrow limits, and such control as its neighbors undertook to impose was successfully rejected. Newport, organized under similar external conditions, began its career by selecting as its first governor one of the richest men of his time in English America. Students of society and of political organization are fairly entitled to information regarding the way in which the existing state of affairs has developed out of the seed planted by Roger Williams, William Coddington, and Samuel Gorton. The chapters of Rhode Island history which need to be written will deal with the periods associated with the names of William Harris and John Clarke, the governors Wanton, Hopkins, and Ward, and Thomas W. Dorr. Material additions to an understanding of each of these periods have recently been made, and more will follow when the long-expected work of Mr. Sidney S. Rider appears, wherein there are likely to find expression more of the distinctive characteristics of Rhode Island than in anything that has yet been printed.

Rhode Island is essentially a problem in social organization. Its beginnings, unprecedented in ideals and opportunities, were sadly like those of other frontier settlements in personnel. As the growth of the surrounding colonies shut it in, the aggressive qualities developed by frontier responsibilities disappeared. Rhode Island after a few years became a sort of back water, an eddy into which was gathered the flotsam cast off by the main current, of New England life. A large proportion of the population of Rhode Island in its earlier days appears to have been made up of those who had not succeeded in making a place for themselves in the other colonies. Harris, described by Williams as “ an impudent Morris dancer in Kent,” who, under a very ragged “ cloak of separation, got in with myself,” was doubtless a fair specimen of the crowd that flocked toward the new settlements at Providence and Portsmouth. At Portsmouth, where the followers of Mistress Hutchinson built the first houses on the island at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the unruly ne’er-do-wells became so large a majority that most of the first-comers, who had been men of substance and standing in Boston, withdrew and chose new homes for themselves at the less fertile Newport. In Providence, the lawless members of the community, who refused to vote taxes and resisted execution of the decrees of town meeting with bludgeon and flint-lock, were driven out after a bitter struggle, to resettle down the bay toward Warwick, or deep in the Pawtuxet woods.

Newport, settled by men of property, and so situated that unusual diligence was necessary to secure a livelihood, soon became a prospering seaport. It is, in consequence, Newport which represents Rhode Island in external dealings throughout the pre-Revolutionary period. This fact is made very clear by the two volumes of letters to and from the governors and the agents who represented the colony in London, edited by Miss Kimball, for the Colonial Dames of America in Rhode Island. These volumes are like a breath of Newport’s own refreshing sea air to the reader who turns their pages after a sitting with the town meeting records of disputes about land and cattle, of bastardy and divorce, tax-dodging and log-rolling, and the other details which engrossed the local Solons. The mercantile interests of Newport controlled the Colonial administration down to the middle of the eighteenth century, and even after the increasing wealth of the northern capital enabled it to compete for the rural vote — the cash price of which was as well known in 1760 as in 1903 — the Newporters continued to direct the policy of the colony in its dealings with the English authorities. The natural result is that the letters of the London agents show that, so far as they were concerned, Rhode Island was very much like the other colonies of New Hampshire and New Jersey. They were alike slow in making payment for long past services, equally liable to sudden and unreasonable contradictions in giving instructions whenever temporary advantages loomed before the Provincial legislators, and equally averse to furnishing data concerning their local commerce and industries. The agents’ letters reveal a most interesting phase of Colonial life, the importance of which has only come to be recognized since historical students awoke to the fact that the American settlements were an integral portion of the British kingdom, directly affected by European political changes, and vitally concerned with the commercial news from Lisbon, Copenhagen, and Marseilles.

In the commercial and industrial life of Rhode Island lay the hope for its future. Therein was dormant whatever of public spirit the colony possessed. The example of Coddington, scheming to organize a government wherein he might wear all the gold lace, and of Harris, anxious to serve any interest, for or against the colony he had helped to establish, provided he could thereby increase the value of his landed possessions, sank deep into the popular imagination and still dominates the standards of a large part of the community. Public spirit implies education, which means expenditure without immediate visible return, and to this the earlier inhabitants of town as well as country were immovably opposed. Rhode Island was settled by men who were unwilling to pay for the religious teaching desired by a majority of the people among whom they had been living. Most of them possessed each his own religion, sufficient unto himself, and they quickly acquired an indisposition to contributing toward any sort of merely spiritual service for the community as a whole. Public spirit has existed from the beginning, and as commercial prosperity increased it becomes evident more and more frequently against the background of popular indifference regarding posterity. Before the Revolution, Hopkins in Providence and Redwood in Newport established libraries which continue to exert an active influence on the intellectual life of these cities. Manning was guaranteed a living in order that a school might be set up in Warren. Nicholas Brown & Co. agreed to pay all the bills for erecting the college edifice in Providence, when it became certain that many of the subscribers toward the cost of the building were expecting to evade their obligations. Members of the same firm of “ the Four Brothers,” when the Boston Port Bill threw the Massachusetts mechanics out of work, engaged them to put up the famous First Baptist Meeting House, “ for the worship of God and to hold Commencement in,” which is still the pride of Providence. There is today no lack of evidence of generous, public-spirited willingness to do everything for the public except trust it politically. The fault is obviously with the people, who do not care about being trusted, doubtless because they do not trust themselves. From the standpoint of the political theorist, the need of Rhode Island to-day, quite as much as when Dorr began his “rebellion,”is a modern constitution of democratic government. Practically, this is insignificant in comparison with the need for citizens who care whether their governor closes gambling houses and stops the playing of policy. The “ lively experiment ” of Roger Williams succeeded for a time because the people who made up his community did not care what other folks thought so long as each could do as he or she liked. It afterwards failed, in the opinion of many, because most persons object to living in the neighborhood of those who are likely to do extremely disagreeable things. The outcome is a commonwealth which is still trying to solve the problem of how to prevent the doing of things that are unpleasant and unprofitable to the body politic, without the use of compelling force. Rhode Island continues to be a very lively experiment, carried on by the lineal and spiritual descendants of Williams and Harris and Gorton and Arnold and John Clarke and Mary Dyer, and the thousands of others who have followed them out from Massachusetts, — and its full meaning is yet to be told.

  1. Rhode Island, its Making and its Meaning, 1636-1683. By IRVING BERDINE Richman, with an Introduction by JAMES BRYCE. TWO volumes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1902.
  2. State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century. A history [by CLARENCE SAUNDERS BRIGHAM] edited by EDWARD FIELD. Three volumes. Boston and Syracuse : Mason Publishing Company. 1902.
  3. Correspondence of the Colonial Governors of Rhode Island, 1723-1775. Edited by GERTRUDE SELWYN KIMBALL, for the Colonial Dames of America in Rhode Island. Two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1902.
  4. Harris Papers [with an Introduction by IRVING B. RICHMAN and Notes by CLARENCE S. BRIGHAM]. Collections of the Rhode Island Historical Society, X. Providence. 1902.
  5. The Fourth Paper presented by Major Butler, wi’h other Papers edited and published by Roger Williams in London, 1652. With an Introduction by CLARENCE SAUNDERS BRIGHAM. Providence : The Club for Colonial Reprints. 1903.
  6. The Early Records of the Town of Providence, Vol. XVII. Town Papers, 1682-1722. Providence : Record Commissioners. 1903.
  7. The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth, edited by the librarian of the Rhode Island Historical Society [C. S. BRIGHAM]. Providence, for the State. 1901.
  8. The Dorr War, or the Constitutional Struggle in Rhode Island. By ARTHUR MAY MOWRY. Providence : Preston & Rounds. 1901.
  9. The Finances and Administration of Providence. By HOWARD KEMBLE STOKES. Baltimore : The Johns Hopkins Press. 1903.