Is it realistic to say that the ideas of Roger Williams still shape us? If so, how best can we live up that legacy, in ways that are constructive for new times?
It goes without saying that Rhode Island has changed in countless ways since his lifetime. He never could have imagined the American Revolution, or the spectacular growth of the United States, or the huge changes wrought in Rhode Island by the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, the world wars of the 20th century, and the problems we have wrestled with in a new century.
If he were to take a canoe across the Seekonk River today, he might recognize parts of the shore – particularly near Blackstone Park and Swan Point Cemetery, where the landscape remains mostly undeveloped. But as soon as he came up the Providence River, and saw a large city spread out before him, he would likely be overwhelmed at how much this place has evolved.
Is it fair to say that our lives still affected by someone who has been gone for more than three centuries, whose handwriting we can barely read, and whose face we have never truly seen in all of those imaginary portraits?
Let’s consider the evidence.
The fact there is a state called Rhode Island, and that its boundaries are roughly the same as those outlined in the charter documents of the 17th century, has a whole lot to do with Roger Williams. He negotiated the earliest purchases, he helped others to come after him, and he established a vision for this place as a refuge for others seeking to worship according to their individual conscience. Rhode Island may be a small place, but that was a big idea.
It certainly was important here in New England. Rhode Island grew into a successful community, no longer threatened by neighbors, able to fend for itself in the world. New England became a more open place because of the “safety valve” Rhode Island offered to those who didn’t fit in to Massachusetts or Connecticut. Although Massachusetts and Rhode Island retained their rivalry in small ways (Roger Williams was not officially forgiven by Massachusetts until 1936), the two states large co-existed happily, especially after they fought together in the American Revolution and Civil War. It could be argued that their differences even strengthened each other, much as Manhattan and Brooklyn have cherished what separates them, even as New York City has grown into a great metropolis, drawing on their combined qualities.
Rhode Island’s example was important nationally and internationally as well. The fact that this experiment survived and then flourished without tight religious control served as an important test case before the world. At the time of the American Revolution, freedom from English religious interference became one of the cluster of freedoms Americans fought for, and they coded it into the DNA of the United States when the new country was organized. The famous first amendment to the Constitution protects not only the right to worship, but specifically forbids the government from creating an “established” or state-sponsored religion.
Rhode Island also deepened this freedom in another way. When the new president, George Washington, visited Newport in August 1790, he exchanged letters with a leader of the Jewish community there, publicly proclaiming his support for the right of any individual to worship according to his or her conscience.
The purpose of this website has been to open up the story of Rhode Island in a way that is accessible to all. Though created with pride in Rhode Island’s achievement, it would not be true to the spirit of Roger Williams if it did not consider all of the evidence, including some that is less celebratory. It is important to acknowledge that there were many imperfections in Rhode Island’s story. Not everyone could live up to Roger’s vision, including sometimes Roger himself. As documented elsewhere in the site, he participated in the sale of Native American captives into slavery after King Philip’s War, and despite his own efforts to build strong relationships with the indigenous peoples he found here, it would be difficult to argue that life became better for Native Americans (or later, enslaved African Americans) because of the creation of Rhode Island.
In later years, as well, Rhode Island struggled to live up to its own standards. Religious intolerance was as present in this state as in others, especially as large numbers of foreign-born workers came to Rhode Island during the Industrial Revolution.
It is of course impossible to know what Roger Williams would have thought of all of these developments. But it is encouraging to speculate that he would have welcomed Rhode Island’s growing reputation as a place of refuge for so many people from so many foreign places. After all, he spoke many languages, and he traded with the Dutch at Cocumcussoc. And from the beginning, he allowed this place, already known as Refugio on the old maps, to become a haven for others seeking their own form of freedom.
The way he founded Rhode Island, as a place open to outside world, has never stopped being relevant. Every century since, Rhode Island has become more diverse. In the early 19th century, as new factories opened, and needed new labor, a wave of new immigration began, that would crest in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but never stop. For much of the 19th century, Rhode Island was the most densely-populated state in the country (it is now second after New Jersey). New citizens came here from Quebec in Canada, from Ireland, from Italy, from Eastern Europe, and from many other places. After the Civil War, recently-freed African-Americans came here as well – not immigrants, technically, but newly-endowed with the full rights of citizenship.
Each of these arrivals strengthened the idea of Rhode Island as a melting pot. That seems like an appropriate metaphor for a state that appreciates food as much as this one. From the beginning, Roger noticed that the Narragansett prepared a delicious food out of many ingredients which he called “Samp,” including corn, milk and butter. He noted that it was “exceeding wholesome for English bodies.”
Rhode Island remains a place that is enriched by its many ingredients. According to a 2015 article in the Providence Journal, Rhode Island is the most Italian-American state in the country, with 18.4% of its citizens claiming Italian descent. It is the fifth-most Irish state, with 17.9% claiming Irish descent. According to the same article, some parts of Rhode Island are especially strong in ethnic categories – in Tract 148, a part of Cranston near Johnston, nearly half the population is Italian-American.
Nor has immigration ended. More recent arrivals have included Central Americans, Southeast Asians, and West Africans. Today, immigration still vitally important to a state that remains a “Refugio.”
A report issued in August 2016 described in detail the impact of immigrants and immigrant-owned businesses on the local economy. The number and the percentage of Rhode Islanders born in foreign countries has been increasing in recent years. In 2010, the US Census recorded that 12.4% of Rhode Islanders were born abroad, up from 9.5% in 1990. Since 2010, the number has crept upward, with about 7000 new immigrants, bringing the percentage to about 13%. All told, that means that Rhode Island has approximately 140,000 immigrants.
Who are they? We do not have to look far to answer that question. They live everywhere in Rhode Island, but especially in the cities, and in Providence above all.
They work hard, and make up 15% of the labor force. Many own grocery stores, or restaurants, or small businesses like nail salons. Quite a few work in manufacturing, for local factories. A high percentage of doctors is foreign-born as well. Their taxes support Rhode Island schools, police departments, and fire departments, and they pay into our retirement and health care systems.
They also make Rhode Island a more cosmopolitan place. The state is full of charming restaurants that make foreign culinary traditions available. Immigrants bring ideas and words from their home countries as well. According to a recent (September 2013) report from the RI State Data Center, more than 1 in 5 Rhode Islanders (21%) speak a language other than English at home. This is true throughout the state, but especially in Providence County, where it is true of nearly 1 in 3 people, or 29.8%. The top five languages spoken, outside of English, are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese and Khmer (or Cambodian).
By translating the words of Roger Williams into these foreign languages, we hope to not only make his thinking available to more, we hope to honor the original open-mindedness of a founder who listened to all of the languages he heard around him.
The Jews of Rhode Island
The Irish in Rhode Island
The African Americans
The Native Americans