Rhode Island Royal Charter
|Royal Charter of 1663|
|Location||Rhode Island State House, Providence|
|Signatories||King Charles II of England|
|Purpose||Establish the government of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations|
The Royal Charter of 1663 was a colonial charter giving English royal recognition to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, providing a foundation for the government, and outlining broad freedoms for the inhabitants of that colony. Having been the guiding document for the government of Rhode Island over a period of 180 years, it was the oldest constitutional charter in the world at the time of its retirement in 1843. It was drafted by Rhode Island's agent in England, Dr. John Clarke, and then approved by England's monarch King Charles II in July 1663, and delivered to the colony the following November. Being read by Captain George Baxter to the freemen of the Rhode Island colony on 24 November 1663, the Assembly voted that words of humble thanks be sent to the King, and a gratuity sent to Dr. Clarke and to Mr. Baxter.
Within the charter are provisions far different than those found in the charters of other colonies, one of them being the recognition that the aboriginal people of the colony were the rightful owners of the land, and that any land used by the colonists was to first be purchased of the natives, and later be recognized by a grant or patent from the crown, a situation reversed from that found in any other colonial arrangement. Another special feature of the charter was its extensive protection of the rights of conscience, a provision much different than the prevailing spirit of the era. The laws of England required uniformity in religious belief, and this incorporation of religious freedom became the sole distinguishing feature of the history of Rhode Island. A final remarkable point about this document is that it offered democratic freedoms to the colony not found in any other charter. The people would elect their own officers and make their own laws, within very broad guidelines, a degree of liberty highly unusual coming from the throne of a monarch.
This charter gave definition to the executive and legislative branches of the government, stated numbers of representatives from each town, and specifically named the Governor, Deputy Governor and the ten Assistants who would initiate the new government under its terms. Only after specific aportionments of town representatives could no longer be done justly under the charter, was the document replaced in 1843, after serving as the guiding force of both the colony and the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations for nearly two centuries. Historian Thomas Bicknell described the charter as "the grandest instrument of human liberty ever constructed."
What became the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations began as a few scattered settlements of fugitives fleeing from the persecution of other colonies. The scattered cabins along the river or bay became small villages, and eventually the villages grew into towns, each with its own government and laws. Greatly threatened by their ambitious and vindictive external neighbors, the towns banded together under the Patent of 1643/4, recognizing their corporate existence, and compelling recognition from their neighbors as well. The freedoms granted by the patent were, in the early days, a source of weakness, and in essence legalized a collection of independent corporations rather than creating a sovereign power resting upon the popular will. The patent produced a confederacy, but not a union. Its defects were seen in the ability of William Coddington to separate the island towns from the government of the mainland towns under a commission he obtained from the crown in 1651.
It was Coddington's very commission that sent Dr. John Clarke to England to have the instrument revoked. Finding success in this endeavor in 1653, Clarke remained in England for the next decade, and became the agent to represent the interests of the fledgling Rhode Island colony before the crown. As the ideas of a government of liberty filled the minds of the Rhode Island colonists, their leaders formed the ideas into letters drafted by the commissioners and forwarded to Clarke. With the end of the English Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell and the accession to the throne of Charles II, the time had come for Rhode Island, and its venerable agent in England, to seek an audience with the King, and present the desires of the Rhode Island settlers.
The Royal Charter of 1663 confirmed everything that the Patent of 1643/4 had given, but vested even greater powers in the people. Under it, the colony was an absolute sovereignty with the power to make its own laws, religious freedom was guaranteed, and oaths of allegiance were not required. The provisions were so liberal, that Rhode Island, in essence, became an independent state under its terms.
Three points in the charter distinguish it from any other royal patent that had ever been granted. The first of these is the acknowledgment of Indian rights to the soil. This provision was far different than the European doctrine of "possession by right of discovery" which was first exercised by the Supreme Pontiff and soon adopted by the maritime powers as part of the "royal prerogative." The sovereigns of Europe asserted their claims over both Americas with little hesitation, and the rights of the aborigines presented no obstacles to these "enlightened and Christian legislators." Historian Samuel G. Arnold wrote, "Against this abuse...Rhode Island was the first solemn protest." The point that the exclusive right to the land belonged to the aborigines was decided by Roger Williams when he first settled in the colony, and his views were maintained by those who followed him there. These views were set forth by Dr. Clarke in his address to the King, and thus became incorporated within the royal charter. A second remarkable point in the charter is the ample protection extended to the colonists of the rights of conscience. This principle, so different from the prevailing spirit of the age, has become the "sole distinguishing feature of Rhode Island's history." The laws of England were rigid in their requirement of uniformity in religious belief. This provision of the charter, therefore, repealed the laws of England so far as the Rhode Island inhabitants were concerned.
A third point distinguishing this charter from all others coming from the throne of a monarch is its democratic liberalism. This document conferred to the residents of the Rhode Island colony the power to elect their own officers and make their own laws, so long as they were not contrary or repugnant to the laws of England. The provisions were very flexible, allowing that the laws considered "the nature and constitution of the place and people there."
The government was to be vested in a Governor, Deputy Governor and ten Assistants, with a House of Deputies consisting of six from Newport, four each from Providence, Warwick and Portsmouth, and two from every other town. The Governor, Deputy Governor and Assistants were to be chosen annually by election at Newport on the first Wednesday of May, and the Deputies were to be chosen by their representative towns. The entire legislative body would be called the General Assembly, and would meet twice a year in May and October, but the places and times of meeting could be altered. Benedict Arnold was named in the charter as Governor and William Brenton named as Deputy Governor. The ten Assistants named in the charter were William Boulston, John Porter, Roger Williams, Thomas Olney, John Smith, John Greene, John Coggeshall, James Barker, William Field and Joseph Clarke. In addition, these primary purchasers and free inhabitants of the colony are named in the document: William Coddington, Nicholas Easton, Samuel Gorton, John Weekes, Gregory Dexter, Randall Holden, John Roome, Samuel Wildbore, Richard Tew, Thomas Harris, and William Dyre.
Because of acts committed against the inhabitants of Rhode Island by other colonies, this charter specifically required that the people of this colony would be permitted to pass unmolested through adjacent provinces. Also, the boundary lines of the Rhode Island colony were minutely defined, though it would take nearly a century of dispute before the colony would enjoy the boundaries as set forth in the charter.
On 24 November 1663 Rhode Island's General Court of Commissioners convened at Newport for the last time under the parliamentary patent of 1643/4. The inhabitants and legislators were gathered to receive the result of the decade-long labors of Dr. John Clarke. The magnitude and solemnity of the occasion was captured in the colonial records:
At a very great meeting and assembly of the freemen of the colony of Providence Plantation, at Newport, in Rhode Island, in New England, November the 24th, 1663. The abovesayed Assembly being legally called and orderly mett for the sollome reception of his Majestyes gratious letter pattent unto them sent, and having in order thereto chosen the President, Benedict Arnold, Moderator of the Assembly," it was "Voted: That the box in which the King's gratious letters were enclosed be opened, and the letters with the broad seale thereto affixed be taken forth and read by Captayne George Baxter in the audience and view of all the people; which was accordingly done, and the sayd letters with his Majesty's Royall Stampe, and the broad seal, with much becoming gravity held up on hygh, and presented to the perfect view of the people, and then returned into the box and locked up by the Governor, in order to the safe keeping of it.
The following day it was voted that words of humble thanks be delivered to the King and also to the Earl of Clarendon. It was also voted that a £100 gratuity be given to Dr. Clarke, and another gratuity of £25 be rendered to Captain Baxter.
This document stood the test of time, and it wasn't until 1843, 180 years after its creation, that the charter was finally replaced, and only for the one reason that the apportionment of representatives for the several towns "could no longer be rendered as just in operation and could only be remedied by alteration of the organic law." When the document was ultimately retired, it was the oldest constitutional charter in the world. So far-reaching was this charter, that even the American Revolutionary War did not change its position, since both rested on the same foundation—the inherent right of self-government.
- History of Rhode Island
- List of colonial governors of Rhode Island
- List of lieutenant governors of Rhode Island
- Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
- Arnold, Samuel Greene (1859). History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Vol.1. New York: D. Appleton & Company.
- Bicknell, Thomas Williams (1920). The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Vol.3. New York: The American Historical Society.
- "Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations". The Laws of Nature and Nature's God. Retrieved 15 August 2012.