September 16, 2014
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Then and Now
The quest for a charter
Terry D'Amato Spencer

There is generally a great deal of confusion among the voting public as to what the relationship is between state and local governments. Generally, we can conclude that in Rhode Island the cities and towns are creatures of the state government and controlled by them to a large extent. This has been modified, however, as the state has granted local governments broad, sweeping powers through the Home Rule Charters of the 1950s.

While these particular charters are of rather recent origin, the demand for a concise, written charter granting the power for local governments to govern themselves extends back to colonial times. Indeed, this struggle for a charter was one of the most time-consuming and important aspects from 1636-1663, and in 1842 a "rebellion" took place in an attempt to change and update the charter-based constitution.

Roger Williams left the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 and settled in Providence without getting a charter or a patent from either the king or Parliament. Later, William Coddington, John Clarke and Samuel Gorton founded colonies on Aquidneck Island and on the Shawomet lands. These founders believed that the land belonged to the Narragansett Indians and, therefore, a purchase from them was sufficient to set up their own local self-government. This situation did not last long, however, as the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony, which did have charters, claimed the land in Rhode Island as well. As early as 1638 quarrels broke out in the Providence community, and in an effort to gain support dissidents in Providence petitioned to have the lands along the Pawtuxet and down to Shawomet annexed to Massachusetts. The Bay Colony even extended its claims to Bristol, Portsmouth and Newport.

Williams, in time, realized the danger to the Rhode Island colonies. The problem was made even more acute by the treatment Samuel Gorton had received from the Massachusetts authorities. Because Rhode Island had no charter, the Massachusetts authorities were able to take advantage of rival tribal factions and claimed sovereignty over the Shawomet lands. They arrested Samuel Gorton and barred him from Shawomet. He returned to England, where he was befriended by the Earl of Warwick and allowed to return to America.

Williams, because of this and other pressures, sacrificed a great deal of time and money to return to England and plead for a charter. The long, tedious venture was well worth the effort, however, as it was during this voyage that he wrote his famous, “A Key Into the Language of America,” giving the world valuable insights into the language and customs of the American Indians. When Williams arrived in England he found that a great many changes had taken place since his departure in 1631. A Puritan Revolution deposed King Charles I, and some of Williams' old friends in Parliament had achieved control. The political climate, plus Williams' reputation as a "saintly" man and the popularity of his book, resulted in Parliament granting a very liberal charter to Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1644. The few restrictions included the proviso that all Laws passed by the colony had to conform to those passed in England, town meetings had to grant the franchise to newcomers, and ownership of land was necessary to qualify one to vote. Most interesting of all was the fact that all powers not granted in the charter remained with the people. This meant, in fact, that the citizens would be able to handle their religious feelings with no outside intervention and in Rhode Island this meant freedom of religion. The charter also allowed for town meetings to regulate local affairs.

Petty jealousies, quarrels and dissension among Rhode Islanders threatened to make the Charter of 1644 inoperable in spite of the support and urging of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector. At about the time that these differences were being resolved, another major change took place in English government. This time the Puritans were ousted and Charles II was restored to the throne. The newly installed king declared all acts passed by Parliament after the execution of Charles I invalid. This, of course, included the Charter of 1644. Once again Massachusetts and Connecticut saw an opportunity to gain land at Rhode Island's expense and pressed the king for charters that would place Rhode Island under Massachusetts and Connecticut jurisdiction. Fortunately, John Clarke, one of the founders of Portsmouth, was able to present a plea to the king on behalf of Rhode Island. He asked that the colony be allowed to continue the "lively experiment" of religious freedom. To everyone's astonishment, a very liberal charter was granted to Rhode Island in 1663 with a guarantee of religious freedom and a separation of Church and State. The charter was so far in advance of other colonies that, except for a two-year period when it was suspended by James II 1687-89, it remained in force throughout the Colonial Period.

When the American Colonies severed their relationship with England as a result of the Revolutionary War and became states, Rhode Island kept her charter of 1663 with but few minor changes.

One of the lessons that history teaches us, however, is that a charter that might be considered very liberal and democratic in 1663 might not be adequate a century or two later. As Rhode Island entered the Industrial Age it became more and more apparent that the 1663 charter with its emphasis on property qualifications and outdated representative districts was unfair to the recently naturalized immigrants who didn’t have property, and to the larger industrial areas which had very little political power in comparison to the small towns.

In 1842, attempts to remedy this actually caused an armed rebellion in the small state. This short-lived confrontation known as Dorr's Rebellion did not immediately bring about any great liberal changes, but gave the state the impetus needed to make the reforms that eventually led to the charter we now have.


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