It was in June of 1636 that the exiled Roger Williams left the country of the Wampanoags and passed down the Seekonk to Narragansett River. His object was to secure a safe retrest beyond the limits of Plymouth colony. He, with his five companions, landed on the western bank, purchased the soil of the Narragansett sachems, and laid the foundations of Providence. Other exiles joined the company. New farms were laid out, new fields were plowed, and new houses built; here, at last, wa found at Providence Plantation a refuge for all the distressed and persecuted.
The leader of the new colony was a native of Wales; born in 1606; liberally educated at Cambridge; the pupil of Sir Edward Coke, in after years the friend of Milton; a dissenter; a hater of ceremonies; a disciple of truth in its purest forms; an uncompromising advocate of freedom; exiled to Massachusetts, and now exiled by Massachusetts, he brought to the banks of the Narragansett the great doctrines of perfect religious liberty and the equal rights of men. If the area of Rhode Island had corresponded with the grandeur of the principles on which she was founded, who could have foretold her destiny?
The beginning of civil government in Rhode Island was simple and democratic. Mr. Williams was the natural ruler of the little province, but he reserved for himself neither wealth nor privilege. The lands which he purchased from Canonicus and Miantonomoh were freely distributed among the colonists. Only two small fields, to be planted and tilled with his own hands, were kepty by the benevolent founder for himself. How different from the grasping avarice of Wingfield and Lord Cornbury! All the powers of the colonial government were intrusted to the people. A simple agreement was made and signed by the settlers that in all matters not affecting the conscience they would yield a cheerful obedience to such rules as the majority might make for the public welfare. In questions of religion the individual conscience should be to every man a guide.
The new government stood the test of experience. The evil prophecies of its enemies were unfulfilled. It was found that all religious sects could live together in harmony, and that difference of opinion was not a bar to friendship. All beliefs were welcome at Narragansett Bay. Miantonomoh, the young sachem of the Narragansetts, loved Roger Williams as a brother. It was the confidence of this chieftain that enabled Williams to notify Massachusetts of the Pequod conspiracy, and then at the hazard of his life to defeat the plans of the hostile nation. This magnanimous act awakened the old affections of his friends at Salem and Plymouth, and an effort was made to recall him and his fellow-exiles from banishment. It ws urged that a man of such gracious abilities, so full of patience and charity, could never be dangerous in a State; but his enemies answered that the principles and teachings of Williams would subvert the commonwealth and bring Massachusetts to ruin. The proposal was rejected.
During the Pequod war of 1637, Rhode Island was protected by the friendly Narragansetts. The territory of this powerful tribe lay between Providence and the country of the Pequods, and there was little fear of an invasion. The next year was noted for the arrival of Mrs. Hutchinson and her friends at the island of Rhode Island. The leaders of the company were John Clarke and William Coddington. Roger Williams made haste to welcome them to his province, where no man's conscience might be distressed. Governor Vane of Massachusetts, sympathizing with the refugees, prevailed with Miantonomoh to make them a gift of Rhode Island. Here, in the early spring of 1638, the colony was planted. The first settlement was made at Portsmouth, in the northern part of the island. Other exiles came to join their friends, and civil government was thought desirable. The Jewish nation furnished the model. William Coddington was chosen judge in the new Isreal of Narragansett Bay, and three elders were appointed to assist him in the government. In the following year the title of judge gave way to that of governor, and the administration became more modern in its methods. At the same time a party of colonists removed from Portsmouth, already crowded with exiles, to the southwestern part of the island, and laid the foundations of Newport.
The island was soon peopled. The want of civil government began to be flet as a serious inconvenience. Mr. Coddington's new Israel had proved an utter failure. In March of 1641 a public meeting was convened; the citizens came together on terms of perfect equality, and the task of framing a constitution was undertaken. In three days the instrument was completed. the government was declared to be a "Democracie," or government by the people. The supreme authority was lodged with the whole body of freemen in the island; and freemen, in this instance, meant everybody. The vote of the majority should always rule. No soul should be distressed on account of religious doctrine. A seal of State was ordered, having for its design a sheaf of arrows and a motto of "Amor vincet omnia." The little republic of Narragansett Bay was named the Plantation of Rhode Island.
The exiled republicans of Rhode Island now determined to appeal to the English government for a charter. Roger Williams was accordingly appointed agent of the two plantations and sent to London. He was cordially received by his old and steadfast friend Sir Henry Vane, now an influential member of Parliament. The plea of Rhode Island was heard with favor; and on the 14th of March in the following year the coveted charter was granted. Great was the rejoicing when the successful ambassador returned to his people. Rhode Island had secured her independence.
The first general assembly of the province was convened at Portsmouth, in 1647. The new government was organized in strict accordance with the provisions of the charter. A code of laws was framed; the principles of democracy were reaffirmed, and full religious toleration and freedom of conscience guaranteed to all. A president and subordinate officers were chosen, and Rhode Island began her career as an independent colony.
Once the integrity of the province was endangered. In 1651, William Coddington, who had never been satisfied with the failure of his Jewish commonwealth, succeeded in obtaining from the English council of state a decree by which the island of Rhode Island was separated from the common government. But the zealous protests of John Clarke and Roger Williams, who went a second time to London, prevented the disunion, and the decree of separation was revoked. The grateful people now desired that their magnanimous benefactor should be commissioned by the English council as governor of the province; but the blind gratitude of his friends could not prevail over the wisdom of the prudent leader. He foresaw the danger, and refused the tempting commission. Roger Williams was proof against all the seductions of ambition.
The faithful Clarke remained in England to guard the interests of the colony. It was not long until his services were greatly needed. The restoration of monarchy occurred in 1660. Charles II. came home in triumph from his long exile. Rhode Island had accepted a charter from the Long Parliament; that Parliament had driven Charles I. from his throne, had made war upon him, beaten him in battle, imprisoned him, beheaded him. Was it likely that the son of that monarch would allow a colonial charter issued by the Long Parliament to stand? The people of Rhode Island had hardly the courage to plead for the preservation of their liberty; but taking heart, they wrote a loyal petition to the new sovereign, praying for the renewal of their charter. To their infinite delight, and to the wonder of after times, the king listened with favor; Clarendon, the minister, assented; and on the 8th of July, 1663, the charter was reissued. The freedom of the colony was in no wise restricted. All the liberal provisions of the parliamentary patent were revived. Not even an oath of allegiance was required of the people.
On the 24th of November the island of Rhode Island was thronged with people. George Baxter had come with the charter. Opening the box that contained it, he held aloft the precious parchment. There, sure enough, was the signatureof King Charles II. There was His Majesty's royal stamp; there was the broad seal of England. The charter was read aloud to the joyful people. The little "democracie" of Rhode Island was safe. The happy colonists were not to blame when they began their letter of thanks as follows: "To King Charles of England, for his high and inestimable--yea, incomparable--favor."
For nearly a quarter of a century Rhode Island prospered. The distresses of King Philip's War were forgotten. Roger Williams grew old and died. At last came Sir Edmund Andros, the enemy of New England. After overthrowing the liberties of Massachusetts, he next demanded the surrender of the charter of Rhode Island. the demand was for a while evaded by Governor Walter Clarke and the colonial assembly. But Andros, not to be thwarted, repaired to Newport, dissolved the government, and broke the seal of the colony. Five irresponsible councilors were appointed to control the affairs of the province, and the commonwealth was in ruins.
But the usurpation was as brief as it was shameful. In the spring of 1689 the news was borne to rhode Island that James II. had abdicated the throne of England, and that Andros and his officers were prisoners at Boston. On May-dau the people rushed to Newport and made a proclamation of their gratitude for the great deliverance.
Again the little State around the Bay of Narragansett was prosperous. For more than fifty years the peace of the colony was undisturbed. the principles of the illustrious founder became the principles of the commonwealth. The renown of Rhode Island has not been in vastness of territory, in mighty cities or victorious armies, but in a steadfast devotion to truth, justice, and freedom.
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