The Rhode Island Charter – 353rd Anniversary
Today marks the 353rd anniversary of King Charles II “Charter for Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”.
In November 1651, John Clarke (brother of my 8th g-grandfater Joseph Clark) traveled to London with my 10th g-grandfather Roger Williams to cancel William Coddington’s special patent that made Coddington “Governor for Life” over Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands and to secure a new charter for the colony of Rhode Island. Having succeeded in getting Coddington’s charter revoked, Williams returned to Rhode Island in 1654, but Clarke stayed in England as the colony’s agent. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 and Rhode Island ‘s charter of 1644 was voided, Clarke worked against great odds to obtain a new charter. On 8 Jul 1663, Charles II of England granted a Royal Charter to Rhode Island . John Clarke wrote the charter, and it contained an explicit guarantee of religious freedom:
“…that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested [harassed], punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceable and quietly…”
The royal charter’s words are carved on the frieze of the Rhode Island State House: “…to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…with a full liberty in religious concernments.” That charter remained the foundation of government in Rhode Island until 1842.
Dr. Stanley Lemons (Professor Emeritus, Rhode Island College) explained the Charter’s significance as follows:
“Rhode Island’s Colonial Charter holds a unique place in the evolution of human rights in the modern world. When King Charles II approved the Charter in July 1663, it marked the first time in modern history that a monarch signed a charter guaranteeing that individuals within a society were free to practice the religion of their choice without any interference from the government. This freedom was extremely radical in an age marked by wars of religion and persecution of people for religious beliefs… Like the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island’s Charter was a product of an amazing confluence of stubborn resolve, diplomatic skill, and ability to capitalize on a moment of opportunity. His charter was unique in its grant of “freedom of religious concernments” and its language soon echoed in the charters of other colonies. Its principles were subsequently written into the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”