roger williams with native americans

How Roger Williams Started a Free Society
By Joe Jarvis - April 15, 2020

This article has been updated to include the following video narration.

Formation of a Radical

Kings never impressed him. And Roger Williams was exposed to Kings from early in his life.

As a youth, he worked for Sir Edward Coke, who was a lawyer, judge, and held other similar political posts in 17th century England. Williams accompanied him daily into the chambers of Parliament and other Councils.

Coke trailblazed many decent government policies for the time. One was that a man’s home is his castle. This helped set the tone for individual rights in England, even against royal opposition. It was Ye Olde Stand Your Ground.

Williams would later take this foundation and build on it. He didn’t believe that the power of Kings truly came from God. Rather, political power derives from the people. The point of government, to Williams, was to organize society for the best interests of individuals so they could pursue their own path, especially when it came to religion.

Williams’ views on religion evolved over his life. By the end of it, he argued for absolute autonomy to practice whatever religion one wished. He even thought atheism should be tolerated, which was radical at that time. Though personally, he remained strongly against atheism, he realized that it was not the government’s role to enforce subjective values.

John M. Barry gives a detailed history of Roger Williams in his book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.

At Pembroke College of Cambridge University in 1623, Williams got first-hand experience with censorship. A graduate of Pembroke was arrested after delivering a sermon arguing the king’s subjects could lawfully resist a ruler who tried to kill or rape them. The student died in prison from the horrible conditions.

Subsequently, Cambridge formally declared “the kingly power… subject to none save God, all resistance to same was pronounced infamous.”

Not surprisingly, Williams later observed, “We count the Universities the fountains [of knowledge]… but have not those Fountains ever sent what streams the Times have liked? and ever changed their taste and colour to the Princes eye and Palate?”

Isn’t it interesting that we have so much in common almost 400 years later? Luckily not many college students are imprisoned for what they preach. But universities do indeed promote the popular message of the time, without giving much credence to free thought and open discussion. You could say colleges still align their “taste and colour to the Princes eye and Palate[.]”

Roger Williams couldn’t stand the suppression of free thinking and open discussion. How else were people supposed to make the world a better place?

After his formal education–which wasn’t worth as much practically speaking as his education from Coke–Williams became outspoken on the Bible. He was not afraid to let his interpretation of scriptures be known, even as doing so became risky. At the time King James V was not into opinions on religion other than his own.

Eventually, Williams would run into legal trouble because of his preaching. It was at this point that he decided he should move across the ocean. There, supposedly, he could find freedom in a new society.

Private Settlements in America

The first English settlements in New England were private business ventures.

Companies were pushing hard to get people to move to America. They were, after all, business ventures and they needed the plantations to be populated in order to succeed. Even though settlements still fell under the jurisdiction of England, the companies which chartered the new mini-societies had enormous control over how they were governed.

The Puritans were after religious freedom… but only for themselves.

These settlements were not chartered to be bastions of free thought. They were created to be theocracies; shining cities on a hill to demonstrate how God smiled upon his chosen people. Their startup societies were very ideological.

They were also separatist. They put up with England’s authority because they knew it would cause too much trouble to attempt to break away. Yet their expressed purpose of starting a new society was because the old one in England was crumbling. According to them, this was because God was punishing the country for its unholiness. Sin was tearing England apart, and they would resurrect a Godly country an ocean away.

In 1629 the governing structure was transferred from stockholders in England, to the actual inhabitants of the colonies. This was a significant step as it allowed the people on the ground to form the type of government they wanted. This attracted more people to the physical location of the colonies. Now the people living there could participate in their local government.

The plus side of the charters was that there were a few different options for which mini-society you wanted to settle in if you moved to America. When Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts, there were established charter towns in Boston, Salem, and Plymouth.

But the Massachusetts startup societies were not free. Religious rules were enforced officially by magistrates. They governed separate from the church, but still enforced religious law.

Unofficially, social pressure was the first line of defense against sinners. But physical removal by the church or state was another option. Submitting to the church and political authority after a transgression usually reduced the sentence.

Individual Secession

You could choose to go off into the wilderness on your own if you wished, and many people did. Most were left alone by authorities in the settlements.

But one man’s lifestyle–and mocking criticism of the church–was too much for them to take. A guy named Morton set up his own home on the outskirts of Boston and erected a large maypole to attract ships to his property where he would trade in furs and other goods he had traded from the Native Americans.

Morton regularly had parties for the Native’s as well. But when he traded them guns and bragged about having sex with the women, that was the last straw. Authorities arrested him and sent him back to England, even though he was outside of their jurisdiction.

Williams would have to remember this lesson when he eventually started his own settlement out of necessity. When you reject authority to stake it on your own, you cannot rely on that same beast to respect your rights. A society must have security in mind from the beginning.

Hypocritical Authorities

Ironically, the government of the settlements in Massachusetts faced oppression from England at the same time they were oppressing individuals.

Seeing the challenge to royal power, the King attempted to revoke the charter of the colonies and bring them under English government power. This would have transformed them from basically private governance, back to the jurisdiction of England.

While employing political delay tactics, the colonies armed up. They thought their only option was to centralize and militarize in order to stand up to the authority of the King.

The colony decided to defend itself and its “lawful posessions,” at the same time they sought to silence Williams’ views on property.

Williams recognized that it was the king who had unlawfully taken lands from the Native Americans, and granted them to the colonies. But they were not his to grant.

The colonies recognized the land as their own, even though the power of the King had helped them obtain the lands.

Williams saw the hypocrisy of the colonies wanting to have it both ways.

In 1635 Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts colonies for essentially preaching in favor of the separation of church and state. He said that governments were not meant to enforce religious laws. Individuals should have freedom of thought and freedom of speech.

Now Williams would have to find a new place to build his vision of a free society.

Roger Williams Starts a Society

Williams went south and was likely aided by his Native American friends. The natives liked Williams because he traded with them, and made a real effort to learn their customs.

Williams learned their languages. At a time when other whites were arguing that it would be impossible to civilize the savages, Williams pointed out that it hadn’t been so long since the people of England behaved the same, before being conquered by Rome.

With the aid of the natives, Williams was able to settle in what would become known as Rhode Island.

Williams had no desire to live by himself, to live cut off. To the contrary, he wanted very much to belong to and participate in a larger society. Now he had the opportunity to create one.

Now in addition to the men who had initially sought him out and moved to Providence with him, a handful of others began straggling into what was New England’s most primitive settlement. It could not yet be called a town. He and they, without a charter or any legal authority from England, without any previous agreement as to how to govern themselves, had to determine what kind of society to build.

Influenced by his mentor Coke, and all his trouble with English and Colonial authority, Williams created a society of individual rights. A man’s home would be his castle, and arbitrary authority of government would be rejected.

Rules would be implemented only to better order the tiny society. Everyone there had joined by their own free will. Now they had the opportunity to create the type of government they saw fit. And if it didn’t turn out how they wanted, they were free to leave, once again, into the wilderness, and start their own.

Williams had observed by now many societies. He knew intimately how the government of England worked, as well as the tiny governments of Massachusetts colonies like Plymouth, Salem, and Boston. He now set to putting his observations to work on his brand new experiment in governance.

Structuring a Society

The land was all owned by Roger Williams, which he had bought fair and square–no trickery–from the Narragansetts with whom he remained on good terms.

Williams maintained ownership of the land, which meant he could have acted as a sort of King. Instead, he allowed others to settle the land and voluntarily submitted to majority rule by heads of households. He considered his land to be common land. But this caused a lot of problems, as it always does.

So instead Williams divided the land among families and created a system of government which would tie them all together, but still allow for the most possible individual freedom.

Williams was coming to see that individuals did not inherit a place in the world; they created it.

In addition, Williams was developing the view that governments received their authority from and were responsible to their citizens. This contradicted both the divine right of kings and the Puritan belief that they were carrying out God’s plan…

Williams’ colony grew by absorbing more Massachusetts expatriates who similarly questioned the various governing policies of the Massachusetts colonies. Many of these people had radically different ideas from Roger Williams on religion and morality. But they never-the-less fit in because the philosophy of the colony did not require one homogenous train of thought. People could have different beliefs and still get along, as long as no one tried to force their ways on others.

By 1641 Providence had reached a population of about 200. The governing structure consisted of “five arbitrators–chosen by the town meeting to work out disputes.”

Fear of a New Way

But to outsiders the colony’s growth was terrifying. Not just in Massachusetts did authorities feel this way, but the fear spread to New Amsterdam (present-day New York City).

One New Amsterdam minister, speaking of people his colony expelled because of religion, remarked, “We suppose they went to Rhod[E] [I]sland, for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people, and is nothing else but the sewer (latrina) of New England… We suppose they will settle there, as they are not tolerated in any other place… All the cranks of Newe England retire thither.”

The surrounding colonies did not want the rabble to pour over into their settlements and spread their dangerous philosophy of freedom. But also, they saw the wealth that was being created and attracted to Rhode Island, because of the liberty available.

Eventually, Massachusetts would try to assert its authority on Rhode Island by claiming the authority to settle land disputes and authorize property deeds there.

In order to fight this advance in courts rather than in blood, Williams went to England to ask for a charter. If he could get an official proclamation establishing Providence and other Rhode Island settlements, this would place his colonies back under the jurisdiction of England. But it would also clearly seperate them from the government of Massachusetts.

Williams was able to get his charter in 1644 without destroying the freedom on which his colony was founded.

[The charter] gave the colony “full Powre & Authority to Governe & rule themselves, and such others as shall hereafter Inhabite within any part of the said Tract of land, by such a form of Civil Government, as by voluntary consent of all, or the greater part of them shall find most suteable to their Estates & Conditions.”

The charter would help get Massachusetts off Rhode Island’s back, but it did mean submitting to the authority of England. But hey, England was across an ocean, and Massachusetts was knocking at the door.

The charter was a step in the right direction. Democratic majority to rule is not ideal for individual liberty. But it meant acknowledgment that the people had the right to rule; that governing authority stemmed from the people and not from God or the King. And it just so happened that at that time, the majority in Rhode Island wanted full separation of church and state.

It was thus that the grand experiment of individual liberty truly began in America.

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