Did Roger Williams affect the future United States? Is he a “founder” of America?
That is a natural question – we want our state’s founder to be known outside as well as inside Rhode Island.
But it is a difficult question, too. Nearly a hundred years went by between the last year of Roger’s life, 1683, and the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He didn’t know a new country would come into existence here. We should be careful about making him more modern than he was.
Still, there were signs that he knew he was doing something very important here. To found a colony is a serious matter; there were only thirteen at the time the United States became a country. He often talked about Rhode Island as a special protector of freedom and as a place where church and state would never interfere with one another. He wrote as if what he was doing here mattered to the world.
That may have seemed impossible to Massachusetts, but over time, Roger not only succeeded in Rhode Island, Rhode Island succeeded in America. Despite the fact that Massachusetts was bigger, Rhode Island’s model of religious freedom, or “soul liberty,” was more attractive to the other states. When the Founders wrote out the documents that created a new country, they included many ideas that seemed to be borrowed from Roger Williams – especially the separation of church and state. The first amendment to the US Constitution says clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is one of the best lines in the Constitution – it celebrates freedom FROM religion, freedom OF religion, and freedom FOR religion.
Many historians have argued for the tremendous impact of Roger’s experiments around Rhode Island, on the new republic that would one day come into existence. For example, Perry Miller wrote, “as a symbol, Williams has become an integral element in the meaning of American democracy, along with Jefferson and Lincoln.” John Dos Passos wrote that Roger Williams was, with Jefferson, the most important “ancestor” of modern America. He even put Roger ahead: “As Jefferson was the second, Roger Williams was the first great leader of the tendency in American life that has striven to keep the roads open instead of to close them …”
But did famous founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison actually read Roger Williams? We know that Jefferson and Madison were sympathetic to the cause of religious freedom. Madison helped to draft the first amendment, and Jefferson asked for “a wall of separation” between church and state in a famous letter he wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. Roger had used the same image a century and a half earlier. (Others had used it before either of them.)
It is also true that Rhode Island’s Charter of 1663 was influential in other ways; it helped to secure similar freedoms for other colonies, like the early versions of New Jersey and North Carolina.
Yet the evidence is difficult to read. The story of Roger Williams had never been forgotten in Rhode Island, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island’s Stephen Hopkins, was also a historian who had written about Roger Williams. We do know that Jefferson had a copy of Rhode Island’s Charter of 1663 in a book in his personal library. We can assume some familiarity, but it is difficult to prove a direct influence.
However, there is one way in which Rhode Island did affect the Founders and the rest of American history. Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen states to ratify the Constitution, and when it did, George Washington came to Rhode Island to help celebrate. He visited a Jewish synagogue in Newport, Touro Synagogue, which is now the oldest synagogue in America, and wrote a beautiful letter afterwards, thanking the Jewish community here and assuring them that the United States does not tolerate bigotry or religious persecution. That was an appropriate message for a President of the United States to write after a visit to the state founded by Roger Williams.
John Barrie, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul
Anthony O. Carlino, “Roger Williams and His Place in History: The Background and the Last Quarter Century,” Rhode Island History (May 2000)
Norman Cousins, In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers
John Dos Passos, The Ground We Stand On
Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State
Albert T. Klyberg, “Rhode Island and the American Nation,” Rhode Island History (August 1987)
Perry Miller: Roger Williams, His Contribution to the American Tradition
Edmund Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State
Nancy E. Pease, “Roger Williams – A Historiographical Essay,” Rhode Island History (November 1976)