Chronicles of America 

Rhode Island and Roger Williams

A year or two later William Coddington, loyal ally of Anne Hutchinson, with others — Clarke, Coggeshall, and Aspinwall, who resented the aggressive attitude of Boston — purchased from the Indians the island of Aquidneck in Narragansett Bay and at the northern end planted Pocasset, afterwards Portsmouth, the second settlement in the colony of Rhode Island. They, too, entered into a covenant to join themselves into a body politic and elected Coddington as their judge and five others as elders. But this modeling of the government after the practices of the Old Testament was not pleasing to a majority of the community, which desired a more democratic organization. After a few months, in the spring of 1639, Coddington and his followers therefore journeyed southward and established a third settlement at Newport. Here the members adopted a covenant, " engaging " themselves " to bear equall charges, answerable to our strength and estates in common," and to be governed " by major voice of judge and elders; the judge to have a double voice." Though differing from the system as developed in Massachusetts, the Newport government at the beginning had a decidedly theocratic character.

The last of the Rhode Island settlements was at Shawomet, or Warwick, on the western mainland at the upper end of the Bay. There Samuel Gorton, the mystic and transcendentalist, one of the most individual of men in an era of striking individualities, after many vicissitudes found an abiding place. He was of London, "a clothier and professor of the misteries of Christ," a believer in established authority as the surest guardian of liberty, and an opponent of formalism in all its varieties. Arriving at Boston in 1637 at the height of the Hutchinsonian controversy, he had sought liberty of conscience, first in Boston, then in Plymouth, and finally in Portsmouth, where he had become a leader after the withdrawal of Coddington. But in each place his instinct for justice and his too vociferous denial of the legality of verdicts rendered by self-constituted authorities led him to seek further for a home that would shelter him and his followers. No sooner, however, was he settled at Shawomet, than the Massachusetts authorities laid claim to the territory, and it was only after arrest, imprisonment, and a narrow escape from the death penalty, followed by a journey to England and the enlisting of the sympathies of the Earl of Warwick, that he made good his claim. Gorton returned in 1648 with a letter from Warwick, as Lord Admiral and head of the parliamentary commission on plantation affairs, ordering Massachusetts to cease molesting him and his people, and he named the plantation Warwick after his patron.

Samuel Gorton played an influential and useful part in the later history of the colony, and his career of peaceful service to Rhode Island belies the opinion, based on Winslow's partisan pamphlet, Hypocrasie Unmasked, and other contemporary writings, that he was a blasphemer, a "crude and half-crazy thinker," a "proud and pestilent seducer," and a "most prodigious minter of exorbitant novelties." He preferred "the universitie of humane reason and reading of the volume of visible creation" to sectarianism and. convention. No wonder the Massachusetts leaders could not comprehend him! He questioned their infallibility, their ecclesiastical caste, and their theology, and for their own self-preservation they were bound to resist what they deemed his heresies.

Thus Rhode Island at the beginning was formed of four separate and independent communities, each in embryo a petty state; no one of which possessed at first other than an Indian title for its lands and a self-made plantation covenant as the warrant for its government. To settle disputes over land titles and to dispose of town lands, Providence established in 1640 a court of arbitration consisting of five " disposers, " who seem also to have served as a sort of executive board for the town. In all outward relations she remained isolated from her neighbors, pursuing a course of strictly local independence. Portsmouth and Newport, for the sake of greater strength, united in March, 1640, and a year later agreed on a form of government which they called "a democratic or popular government," in which none was to be "accounted a delinquent for doctrine." They set up a governor, deputy governor, and four assistants, regularly elected, acid provided that all laws should be made by the freemen or the major part of them, "orderly assembled." In the system thus established we can see the influence of the older colonies and the beginning of a stronger government, but at best the experiment was halfhearted, for each town reserved to itself complete control over its own affairs. In 1647 Portsmouth withdrew "to be as free in their transactions as any other town in the colony," and the spirit of separatism was still dominant.

But it soon became necessary for the four towns of what is now Rhode Island to have something more legal upon which to base their right to exist than a title derived from their plantation covenants and Indian bargains. Massachusetts was extending her claims southward; Edward Winslow was in England ready to show that the Rhode Island settlements were within the bounds of the Plymouth patent; and certain individuals, traders and land-seekers, were locating in the Narragansett country and taking possession of the soil. To combat these claims, Roger Williams, who had so vehemently denied the validity of a royal patent a few years before, but influenced now, it may be, by Gorton's insistence that a legal title could be obtained only from England, sailed overseas and secured from the parliamentary commissioners in March, 1644, a charter uniting Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport, under the name of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay, and granting them powers of government. For the moment even this document had no certain value, for, in spite of the fact that the parliamentarians were at war with the King, Charles I was still sovereign of England and should he win in the Civil War the title would be worthless. However, the patent was not put in force until 1647, after the victory of Cromwell at Naseby had given control into the hands of Parliament; and then a general meeting was held at Portsmouth consisting of the freemen of Warwick, Portsmouth, and Newport, and ten representatives from Providence. The patent did not state how affairs were to be managed, and the colonials, meeting in subsequent assemblies, worked out the problem in their own way. They refused to have a governor, and, creating only a presiding officer with four assistants, constituted a court of trials for the hearing of important criminal and civil causes. No general court was created by law, but a legislative body soon came into existence consisting of six deputies from each town. Before this Portsmouth meeting of 1647 adjourned, it adopted a code of laws in which witchcraft trials and imprisonment for debt were forbidden, capital punishment was largely abolished, and divorce was granted for adultery only. In 1652, the assembly passed a noteworthy law against the holding of negroes in slavery.

But the new patent did not bring peace to the colony. In 1649, Roger Williams wrote to Governor Winthrop: "Our poor colony is in civil dissension. Their last meeting [of the assembly] at which I have not been, have fallen into factions. Mr. Coddington and Captain Partridge, etc., are the heads of one, and Captain Clarke, Mr. Easton, etc., the heads of the other." What had happened was this. Coddington, representing the conservative and theocratic wing of the assembly and opposing those who were more liberally minded, had evidently applied to Massachusetts and Plymouth for support in the effort to obtain an independent government for Aquidneck. This plan would have destroyed what unity the colony had obtained under the patent, but Coddington wished to be governor of a colony of his own. Both Massachusetts and Plymouth were favorable to this plan, as they hoped to further their own claims to the territory of islands and mainland. Twice Coddington made application to the newly formed Confederation of New England for admission, but was refused unless he would bring in Aquidneck as part of Massachusetts or Plymouth, the latter of which laid claim to it. Coddington himself was willing to do this but found the opposition to the plan so vehement that he gave up the attempt and went to England to secure a patent of his own. After long negotiations he was successful in his quest and returned with a document which appointed him governor for life with almost viceregal powers. But he had reckoned without the people whom he was to govern. Learning of the outcome of Coddington's mission and hearing that he had had secret dealings also with the Dutch at New Amsterdam, the inhabitants of the islands rose in revolt, hanged Captain Partridge and compelled Coddington to seek safety in flight. Williams again went to England in 1651 and procured the recall of Coddington's commission and a confirmation of his own patent, and Coddington in 1656 gave in his submission and was forgiven.

The early history of Rhode Island thus furnishes a remarkable exhibition of intense individualism in things religious and a warring of disruptive forces in matters of civil organization.

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