The Rhode Island Colonial Charter

The Rhode Island Charter, provided by Wikipedia

In 1663, The Royal Charter of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – the document that outlined the roles of government within the colony – exceeded all expectations in establishing a lasting form of government, which remained effect until 1843 when the state ratified a constitution.  What makes this charter so impressive is that it not only governed the colony under British rule, but following the revolution it continued to do so.  The only changes made to the charter were in 1776 when any mention of crown authority over the colony was omitted and replaced with fealty to only the colony itself.

            The colony unofficially began as an outlet for frustrated landowners like Roger Williams and William Coddington who settled in Rhode Island for religious and political asylum. Before the charter, 1643 saw the installation of The Patent of “The Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New

England,” to officially relinquish power to the colony.  After the commonwealth fell and Royal Authority came back to England, a royal charter had to be established to reaffirm the region. Without altering many of the aspects of the Patent of 1643, the crown drafted the Royal Charter for the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

As it stood, the Charter was effectively an experiment in religious freedom sanctioned by the English crown in order to give trouble-making colonists, as well as Englishmen, a haven for free religious expression. “And whereas, in their

Map of Rhode island ca. 1797, Provided by the Library of Congress

humble address, they have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted) to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained, and that among our English subjects, with a full liberty in religious concernments and that true piety rightly grounded upon gospel principles, will give the best and greatest security to sovereignty…” This was the founding principle of the Rhode Island charter and was left unchanged with the Patent of 1643.

The colony was a corporation founded by a group of plantation owners.  Before the revocation of any crown authority, the founders established colonial laws as well as enforced laws of the British Empire.  Among the group of colonists that founded Rhode Island, the Crown selected a Governor, a Deputy-Governor, and ten Assistants.  The freemen of the company elected successors.  These officials, in turn, looked after the best intentions of the land.  Two elections were held every year, and each assistant received a vote and each town or city within the colony gets a specific number of votes based on the population. This would have been subject to change as the colony grew in population.

French Map of Newport ca. 1780, provided by the National Park Service

The Assistants and freemen who had the potential to be elected in the future would join a General Assembly. When convened the General Assembly is headed by the Governor or Deputy-Governor and at least six Assistants.  The General Assembly selected dates and frequencies of elections, as well as nominate and elect new members to the Assembly if need be.  The Assembly would also commission and regulate new government offices as required.  The assembly controlled the distribution of land, handled judicial duties, and dealt with the Indian tribes to hopefully welcome them into the colony if the tribesmen agreed to worship God and follow English laws.

The colonial government was only allowed to arm for war if colonists planned to harm or overthrow the company.  This is one instance where the date of the Charter is made evident, since the ideas of philosophers like John Locke believed that a populace was obligated to overthrow their government. The colony could also take measures to defend against Indian tribes, but were not allowed to invade tribal lands.  Colonists could also not harm the Indians economically. This would have meant that colonists could not fish, hunt, log, or perform other industrial duties on Indian lands, or otherwise encroach on Indian territories. The articles of Confederation borrowed heavily from the Charter’s clauses on Indian relations, as it referred to the Indian territories as a separate sovereign nation.

According to the Charter, the colony was able to trade wherever they wanted within the continent, but foreign trade was regulated by British taxation until 1776. If there was any dispute between Rhode Island and other New England Colonies, then the Governor of Rhode Island was forced to appeal to the Crown to solve the problem and had to submit to the Crown’s Authority in the matter. This process also changed after 1776, when the colony denied Crown authority.

As a colony, Rhode Island seems to have been ahead of its time in democratic solutions during an era and place where everything ultimately resided with the decisions of the crown. The ideals of progressive thinking businessmen and plantation owners were able to instill a written constitution that would endure virtually unchanged for over a hundred years. These ideals regarding freedom and free trade would eventually reflect in the constitution of the United States. The momentous act of independence was the only thing that was able to make fundamental changes to the charter, and the new version would also remain unchanged for another half a century.

Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution (New York: Random House inc, 2002), 65.
Rhode Island Royal Charter of 1663
Edward Peterson, History of Rhode Island and New Port (New York : John S. Taylor, 1853), 7,9,12,13.
“Gov. Chafee, Secretary Mollis Announce Rhode Island 1663 Colonial Charter 350th Anniversary Commission.” US Fed News Service, Including US State News, Feb 24, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *