Rhode Island colonial history





While the framework of the colony of Connecticut was in process of construction, that of its little neighbor on the east, Rhode Island, was like-wise in a formative state. Persecution by brethren had driven into the forests on the borders of Narraganset Bay, good men who became the founders of a state. That bay had been discovered and thoroughly explored by Block, the Dutch navigator, as early as 1614, when he gave the name of Roode Eylandt or Red Island to the insular domain on its eastern side, now Roode Eylandt or Red Island to the insular domain on its eastern side, now known as Rhode Island. Eight or ten years afterward the Dutch on Manhattan carried on a profitable fur trade with the natives there, and a few years later they had the monopoly of that trade as far east as Buzzard's Bay. The Pilgrims at Plymouth were annoyed by this commercial intrusion, as we have seen, and especially when the New Netherlanders claimed territorial jurisdiction as far east as Narraganset Bay, and westward from a line of longitude from that bay to Canada. That claim was made at about the time when Roger Williams, the founder of the commonwealth of Rhode Island, sought refuge from persecution in the forests on the borders of the Narraganset. The claim was not relinquished until many years afterwards, but was never pressed with injurious vehemence.

Mr. Williams was a Welch Puritan educated in England by Sir Edward Coke, who found him in London, a mere youth, reporting sermons and Star-chamber speeches in shorthand. At the age of thirty-two years he fled from persecution to New England, where he arrived in 1631 with his beautiful bride Mary, a charming young English woman. He was soon appointed assistant minister in the church at Salem, where his broad and enlightened views respecting the freedom of conscience and the injurious character of a wedded church and state offended the dignitaries in both, at Boston, and he withdrew to Plymouth. There he was an assistant minister, acceptable to the people, for about two years, when he returned to Salem and became pastor of the congregation to whom he had ministered as assistant.

Bolder than ever, his convictions having become more firmly rooted by opposition and controversy, Mr. Williams now put forth his views in sometimes intemperate language, for in support of toleration he became intolerant. He boldly questioned the authority of magistrates in respect to the right of the king to appropriate and grant the lands of the Indians without purchase, and the right of the civil power to impose faith and worship. This denial of the right of magistrates to intermeddle, even to restrain a church from heresy or apostacy, was regarded as so monstrous and dangerous an error and innovation that the banishment of Williams from the colony was decreed unless he should recant, or take back what he had said. He would not recant. He maintained with vehemence his opinion that there was an absolute and eternal distinction between the spheres of the civil government and the Christian church. He also appealed in writing to the charter against the decision of magistrates; and he wrote a long letter to his own congregation in favor of the rigid separation of church and state. These writings were among his enumerated offences, and were called "letters of defamation" in the preface of his sentence of banishment which was now put in force, and which ran thus:

"It is therefore ordered that the said Mr. Williams shall depart out of this jurisdiction within six weeks now next ensuing, which, if he neglect to perform, it shall be lawful for the governor and two of the magistrates to send him to some place out of this jurisdiction, not to return any more without license from the court."

This sentence was pronounced late in 1635. The friends of Williams were indignant. The enlightened Edward Winslow, who was then governor of Plymouth, sympathized with him; and twenty leading men in the two colonies determined to go with him to the wilderness and share his privations of exile. Salem was in an uproar, and the magistrates began to suspect that they had made a mistake in passing the sentence. A rumor spread that he intended to found a colony among the Narragansets, with whom he had become familiar while he was at Plymouth and gained the friendship of their sachems and learned their language.

A colony founded upon the liberal principles advocated by Williams was not a pleasant subject for the contemplation of Massachusetts magistrates and clergymen at that period, and the time for his departure was extended until spring. Williams regarded this as a concession. No doubt he had formed a plan for founding a new colony, and was now glad of an excuse to leave Massachusetts; so he taught his doctrines with more fervor, and boldly proclaimed himself to be an Anabaptist-one who denies the validity of infant baptism-a Baptist of our day. This was too much for his people and the authorities in church and state, and it was resolved by Governor Haynes to send the "troubler" back to England. He had refused to obey a summons to appear before the magistrates at Boston, and they sent a pinnace to Salem, with a warrant to Captain Underhill to arrest him, take him on board the little vessel, and convey him to a ship then ready to sail for England.

Williams had been informed of this order. Ex-Governor Winthrop had kindly but secretly advised him to "steer his canoe to the Narraganset Bay and Indians;" and when Underhill and his men went to his house to arrest him, they found only his sorrowing wife and two babes. Williams had been gone three days. On a cold winter's night, the moon on the wane, he had kissed his wife and children and departed in the gloom to seek a refuge with the dusky pagans, who were more tolerant than his pale-faced Christian brethren. He went forth alone with a long staff and a scrip thrown over his shoulders. The snow was deep. Wild beasts were in his path. Behind him were the treasures of wife and children; before him, as radiant and enticing as the "star in the east," glowed the brilliant luminary of Christian ethics, which was his pole-star and guide. He made his way to the house of Massasoit, the venerable sachem of the Wampanoags, where he was warmly welcomed. The sachem gave him a tract of land on the Seekonk River, eastward of the site of Providence, at which place he and some friends who joined him seated themselves in the spring of 1636. Some distance above them, on the Seekonk or Pawtucket River, was a solitary settler named William Blackstone. He was a non-conformist minister, who disliked the "lords brethren" of Massachusetts as much as the "lords bishops" of England. He had withdrawn to the wilderness, and there lived the life of a hermit at a place which he named Rehoboth-room. He was the first settler but not the founder of Rhode Island, for he refused to join Williams and his friends.

Just as the new colony had begun to build and plant near the present Manton's cove, a friendly letter came from Governor Winslow saying they were within the jurisdiction of the Plymouth Colony, and as he did not wish to offend "the Bay," and desired the undisturbed repose of the exiles, he advised Williams and his little party to pass to the other side of the Seekonk, where he would have a large country before him beyond the jurisdiction of both colonies on the coast.

The settlers heeded this kind and wise advice. The six exiles left the Seekonk in a large canoe, with all the worldly goods which they had brought into the wilderness, and rounding the headlands known as Fox and India Points, they went up to the mouth of the Mooshansic River and landed. It was a warm day late in June. Near by, upon a grassy slope shaded by sycamore trees, they saw a gushing spring. It was a joyful sight to the thirsty pilgrims. Around it they gathered, and after partaking of its clear waters, they fell on their knees and offered fervid supplications and thanks-giving to God for his goodness. At that spring, now surrounded by a populous city and yet shaded by sycamores, these devout men resolved there to lay the foundations of a free state. In commemoration of "God's merciful providence to him in his distress," Williams named the spot Providence, and dedicated it as "a shelter for persons distressed for conscience."

The freedom enjoyed at Providence was spoken of at Boston, and persecuted men flocked to the new settlement with their families. Williams had purchased the land from the aged Canonicus and the younger Miantonomoh, who had learned to love him. These men, naturally shy and suspicious, had perfect confidence in Williams, and willingly took him and his friends into their bosoms. "It was not thousands nor tens of thousands of money," Williams wrote, "that could have bought of them an English entrance into the bay." It was the personal influence of the men who there established a pure democracy, under the following simple article of agreement:

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

Every man was required to sign this compact, which left him free in all but "civil things." The conscience was left absolutely free. The founder reserved no political power to himself, and the leader and follower had equal dignity and privileges. Under the sunny skies of such freedom, the settlers fell to work cheerfully. The summer was too far advanced to allow them to procure much food from the soil; and when Governor Winslow visited Providence in the autumn, the planters were much pinched. This fact is made evident by the touching manner in which the founder gratefully alludes to the kindness of the governor. "He put a piece of gold into the hands of my wife for our supply," he wrote;-that sweet, loving wife who shared with her husband the privations as well as the comforts and honors which were his lot.







Now came the war with the Pequods. Persecution and slander had not embittered the feelings of Roger Williams toward the authorities of Massachusetts. Seeing the danger, he warned them of it early. He sent to Governor Winthrop a rude map of the country along the coast from the Narraganset to the Connecticut, which he had drawn from descriptions by the Indians, with a plan for a campaign, and perilled his life for the good of his enemies. He saved his persecutors from destruction, yet the rulers in church and state in Massachusetts had not the Christian manliness to show gratitude by expunging from their records his sentence of banishment and receiving him to their bosoms as a brother. They proclaimed a solemn thanksgiving at the close of the war, and received the leaders of their troops in triumph with feasting and rejoicing; but they passed no vote of thanks to one who had achieved more for the life of that commonwealth than any soldier or statesman. Winthrop tried to procure a vote of thanks and Williams's recall from banishment, but bigotry prevailed. The following couplet, written by Governor Dudley, expresses the prevailing sentiment of magistrates and clergy then in Boston:

"Let men of God, in court and churches, watch O'er such as do a toleration hatch."

The theological disputes already referred to as agitating the people of Massachusetts divided them and sent many into exile. A brilliant woman, named Anne Hutchinson, of powerful intellect and beautiful person, came to Boston. She was a sister of Rev. John Wheelwright, a popular preacher there. She agreed, generally, in theological views, with Roger Williams, and very soon boldly proclaimed the doctrine that conscience, the indwelling Holy Spirit in every believer, and the conscientious judgment of the mind, are of paramount authority. She denounced the prevailing spiritual despotism, and startled and charmed the best thinkers with the loftiness of her ideas concerning the spiritual freedom of the individual. She soon drew many leading men after her. Among these was the young Henry Vane, then governor of the commonwealth, and a few of the clergy, but only her brother among the ministers ventured to openly advocate her doctrines. He was censured by the civil authorities, when he threatened to appeal to the king. This threat a synod of clergy and lay delegates, called to act upon the subject, construed into a menace of rebellion, and gave them a pretext for recommending the civil authorities to disarm the "Hutchinsonians."

The war of words was waged more fiercely. The civil authorities arraigned Mrs. Hutchinson, her brother, and another leader in the movement, on a charge of heresy. The result was a decree for the banishment of these three persons, and the disarming of sixty citizens of Boston. They were forbidden, upon the penalty of a fine, to buy or borrow any other arms or ammunition, until permitted by the General Court or legislature. Unwilling to endure this indignity, a large portion of them, under the leadership of John Clarke and William Coddington, left Boston with their families, accompanied by Mrs. Hutchinson and her brother, with the intention of settling on the Delaware Bay. They were so "lovingly entertained" by Roger Williams at Providence, and so kindly invited to settle in the land of the Narragansets, that they paused. Through the influence of Williams they were enabled to purchase from the Indians the beautiful island of Aquetneck, now Rhode Island; and at the close of March, 1638, they began a settlement at Portsmouth, near its northern extremity. The colonists were charmed with the salubrity of the climate, and thankfully exchanged their home on Shawmut (the Boston peninsula) for one on Rhode Island. They all immediately adopted and all signed a written agreement similar to that of the Providence colony, in these words:

"We, whose names are underwritten, do swear solemnly, in the presence of Jehovah, to incorporate ourselves into a body politic, and, as He shall help us, will submit our persons, lives, and estates, unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of Hosts, and to all those most perfect and absolute laws of His, given us in his Holy Word of Truth, to be guided and judged thereby."

In imitation of the Jewish form of government, under the judges, Mr. Coddington was chosen judge or chief ruler of the Rhode Island colony. Both settlements flourished. They were separate governments, but one in aims and sentiment. The persecuted came to them and population rapidly increased. Liberty of conscience was there absolute; and upon the seal which the Rhode Island colony adopted was the motto: Amor Vincit Omnia -"Love is all-powerful." The jealousy of the Massachusetts authorities was frequently conspicuous, and stood in the way of a friendly intercourse and a profitable trade between the two colonies. Because a refugee from Boston, writing from Providence, spoke harshly of Massachusetts magistrates, the latter passed an ordinance forbidding citizens of Providence, of like views, coming into that colony.

Unwilling to yield allegiance to either of the other colonies, the Rhode Island and Providence settlements sought an independent charter which should unite them in one commonwealth. At about that time, a confederacy of the New England colonies, for mutual defence, was formed, but the stern bigotry which banished Mr. Williams and Mrs. Hutchinson, excluded these settlements on the Narraganset from the Union. That isolation, in case of trouble with the Indians, would be both perilous and inconvenient, and Williams was sent to England to obtain a royal charter. He sailed from New Amsterdam in the summer of 1643, and arrived in Great Britain at the time when the civil war was raging violently. Circumstances favored his mission. The king was powerless; the Parliament was supreme. That body had entrusted the management of colonial affairs to a commission of which the Earl of Warwick, the original grantee of Connecticut, was the head as "Governor-General and Lord High Admiral of the colonies in America." He was assisted by a council composed of five peers and ten commons. Henry Vane, who had returned to England and had been created a baronet, was one of that Council. He received Mr. Williams cordially, and introduced him to his associates. That body listened to Mr. Williams's statements with great attention, and granted his prayer. On the 14th of March, 1644, they issued a charter in the name of the king, which connected the towns of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport under the title of "the Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England."

Mr. Williams left England for his home in the summer of 1644, bearing the charter. He also bore a letter signed by several members of Parliament. addressed to the authorities of Massachusetts, in favor of the exile, and with this he landed in Boston. The letter did not weaken the asperities of the magistrates toward him, excepting sufficient to allow him to pass to Providence unmolested. That heretical colony, now that it had received a charter and been applauded by high authority in England, was more than ever an object of distrust and suspicion on the part of the Massachusetts authorities. But Mr. Williams bore himself meekly under their frowns. As he approached Providence he was cheered by a gratifying spectacle. The people had heard of his coming, and all turned out to meet him and welcome him home. The Seekonk was covered with well-filled canoes gaily decked with flowers and evergreens, and the shore was alive with men, women and children in holiday attire, who greeted him with loud huzzas, the waving of handkerchiefs, and the singing of psalms. The charter which he bore to the people on the banks of the Narraganset was the corner-stone of a state. Then was founded the commonwealth of Rhode Island.







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