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Rhode Island's Founder Abandons Liberty

May 15, 2012

Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryInterventionismPolitical Theory

[Conceived in Liberty (1975). An MP3 audio file of this article, narrated by Floy Lilley, is available for download.]

Roger Williams arrived in England at the moment of Puritan victory and at the peak of the revolutionary intellectual ferment. The great libertarian Leveller movement was at the peak of its influence, and religious freedom had given rise to many diverse and enthusiastic sects. Williams plunged again into intimate association with such liberal Puritan leaders as Sir Henry Vane and John Milton. The upsurge of libertarian views had led to a polarization of ideas among the Puritans, a polarization accelerated by the disruption that always follows the victory of a revolutionary coalition. The orthodox Puritans, or Independents, headed by the Rev. John Owen, began to move toward a new state church of their own and toward the suppression of other religious views. The liberal wing of the Puritans, including Vane and Milton, moved in to battle this essentially counterrevolutionary trend, and Williams enthusiastically joined in this struggle.

Eight years before, Williams's Bloody Tenent had been ordered burnt by the Presbyterians then in control of Parliament. Now his writings in behalf of religious liberty received great acclaim in Parliament and in the victorious New Model Army. This was especially true of his published reply to the Rev. John Cotton's attack on the Bloody Tenent. Williams's rebuttal was The Bloody Tenent Yet More Bloody, in which he denounced Massachusetts's persecution of men for their consciences. Williams also proceeded to a keen attack on the Massachusetts oligarchy: a forced payment of tithes created a church leadership "rich and lordly, pompous and princely," and gave it a monopoly on public office. Wasn't the insistence on compulsory church attendance a reflection of the fear of the rulers that, given a free choice, people's attendance in their churches would fall off? Williams pointed also to Holland's commercial greatness continuing side by side with its practice of religious toleration. And he warned prophetically that the Irish question would never be settled so long as the laws persecuting Roman Catholics remained. Only full religious freedom, "free Conferrings, Disputings and Preachings," could reduce civil strife and bloodshed.

Williams even pressed on from his insight into religious liberty to a much wider politico-economic libertarian view: the kings of the earth, he declared, used power "over the bodies and goods of their subjects, but for the filling of their paunches like wolves." These rulers, employing "civil arms and forces to the utmost," pressed for "universal conquest" to establish "rule and dominion over all the nations of the Earth." But, on the contrary, government's proper function is to secure to each individual his "natural and civil rights and liberties … due to him as a man, a subject, a citizen."

In another tract written in that exhilarating spring of 1652, Hireling Ministry None of Christ's, Williams defended the idea of voluntary rather than compulsory donations to churches. He also declared: "I desire not that liberty to myself, which I would not freely and impartially weigh out to all the consciences of the world beside." Government's "absolute duty" was to insure "absolute freedom" for each religious group.

Williams's new writings had a twofold thrust and purpose: to advance the cause of Rhode Island liberty against Massachusetts, and at the same time to wage the good and general fight for liberty against tyranny in England itself. The major complementary tract, setting forth the specific case for Rhode Island, as well as a Baptist defense of religious liberty, was John Clarke's newly published Ill Newes from New-England.

Although Williams and Clarke had no difficulty disposing of Coddington's claims, the larger problem of Rhode Island vis-à-vis Massachusetts was far more difficult. For the crucial decision on which way the Puritan Revolution would turn rested not with Williams's friends but with Oliver Cromwell, head of the New Model Army and a centrist torn between the flaming principles of the liberals and a conservative yearning by orthodox Independents and Presbyterians for a swing back to statism. Cromwell, furthermore, was friendly with the oligarchs of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, as well as with Roger Williams. Moreover, the Protector was, fatefully, balking increasingly at the obvious next task of the revolution: the smashing of feudal landholding. The libertarian groundswell of the revolution could not be sustained unless the feudal oligarchy was dispossessed of political power as well as of its restrictive hold of the land of England created by that power and on which that power was now based.

Events moved swiftly, as happens in revolutionary situations, and by May 1653 Cromwell had made his fateful decision — for the landed oligarchy, for statism, and for counterrevolution. Parliament was forcibly dissolved, and military dictatorship assumed by Cromwell. The great Leveller leader John Lilburne was jailed for his libertarian views and the Leveller movement broken up. Only the courageous Sir Henry Vane continued to cry out in protest, charging that Cromwell was plucking up liberty by its very roots. Williams too joined Vane in opposition, at least privately denouncing the Protector as a "usurper" and also attacking Cromwell's aggressive imperialism, typified by his war against the Dutch.

Proceeding skillfully, however, Williams was able to procure an at least tentative confirmation by the English government of Rhode Island's charter claims. Short of funds and discouraged by the new turn on the English scene, and spurred by the turmoil in Rhode Island, Williams returned home in the summer of 1654, leaving John Clarke in London to continue the negotiations.

Williams arrived to find a highly troubled colony. In particular, his beloved Providence was again in great danger. William Coddington had been successfully overthrown, but this by no means ended trouble from Aquidneck. Instead, the Aquidneck government, headed by William Dyer and including Nicholas Easton, had embarked on an aggressive, imperialist course of its own. It had launched piratical attacks on the Dutch of New Netherland, and simultaneously, in spring 1653, combined with a minority of Providence-Warwick people to claim that theirs was the true government of the Rhode Island colony. The Providence-Warwick government had protested, and charged that Aquidneck aggression against the Dutch would "set all New England on fire." At the same time, the Pawtuxet oligarchy again refused to pay taxes to Providence, and once again Massachusetts threatened armed intervention and prevented Providence from pressing its claim.

Any lesser man than the great founder of Rhode Island would have been discouraged enough to give up. For almost two decades Roger Williams had fought for individual liberty, in England, in New England, and especially for his Rhode Island. And now England was retrogressing and Rhode Island was rent in civil strife. But the great peacemaker, who had conciliated so many disputes and conflicts with the Indians, now used his powerful influence to bring the various factions into conciliatory negotiations. Rational persuasion and not force was his instrument in obtaining agreement and a new unity in the colony. Williams's main task was to bring into the negotiations a reluctant Providence, disgusted by the piracy conducted by the Dyer-Easton rulers of Aquidneck against the Dutch. Finally, each of the four towns agreed to choose six commissioners for a conciliation conference, which met at Warwick at the end of August 1654. The decision of the conference was at once a victory for Williams and unity, and a complete defeat for the Easton-Dyer faction. Reunion of the Rhode Island colony was achieved, and all the laws of Aquidneck since the Coddington usurpation were eliminated, thus restoring the old pre-Coddington dispensation to the colony. Coddington himself formally submitted to Rhode Island authority two years later. Roger Williams was then elected president of the reunited colony.

Even the Pawtuxet troubles were finally fading. Benedict Arnold, son of William and leader of the Pawtuxet oligarchy, finally abandoned the oligarchy's long search for outside armed intervention, renounced Massachusetts, submitted himself to Rhode Island, and moved from Pawtuxet to Newport. However, the actual reunion of the rest of the colony with Pawtuxet did not take place for five more years,

A year later, 1655, Oliver Cromwell greatly helped settle the outstanding issues by sending a formal message to Rhode Island, confirming its right to self-government under the charter of 1644.

On this happy event, Williams wrote to Vane on behalf of the town of Providence. Vane had written to Rhode Island wondering why the colonists had fallen into such disorder. Williams replied for Providence that Rhode Island has "long drunk of the cup of as great liberties as any people that we hear of under the whole heaven." Possibly this "sweet cup hath rendered many of us wanton and too active." Rhode Island, Williams pointed out, had been spared the civil war of England, the "iron yoke of wolfish bishops," and the "new chains of Presbyterian tyrants … nor in this colony have we been consumed with the over-zealous fire of the so-called godly Christian magistrates." Williams expanded this recital of Rhode Island liberties to include the political and economic: "Sir, we have not known what an excise means; we have almost forgotten what tithes are, yea, or taxes either, to church or commonwealth."

It was at this very moment, the moment of triumph, that Roger Williams made a radical and fateful shift in his thinking and actions. From a fighter for liberty, Williams suddenly became a statist and an invader of liberty; from a devoted advocate of freedom of conscience, Williams became himself a persecutor of that very conscience. What was the reason or reasons for this sudden turnabout, this betrayal of the causes for which Roger Williams had so long devoted his very life?

No historian can ever look completely into the soul of another man, but he can make some judicious estimates. We may note several probable reasons for the shift. First, there is the subtle corruption wrought by power, even upon the staunchest libertarian. In the last analysis, power and liberty are totally incompatible, and when one gains the upper hand, the other succumbs. The heroic fighter for liberty out of power is often tempted, once the reins of command are in his hands, to rationalize that now "order" must be imposed — by him; that "excessive" liberty must be checked — by him. Williams had been president of Rhode Island only once before, in the 1644–47 period when there was hardly any government in the colony. As soon as the colony was formally organized in 1647, Williams had been happy to retire to the private life of a successful fur trader. He had then only emerged from private life to go to England to save the colony. It was only now, in effect, that he was assuming the political post of head of Rhode Island.

A second reason was the coinciding theoretical error that Williams had made in his letter to Vane, that what Rhode Island had been suffering from was an excess of liberty — the "sweet cup hath rendered many of us wanton." On the contrary, the conflicts in Rhode Island had been caused not by too much liberty, but by too little: the land monopoly and the treachery of the Pawtuxet oligarchs, the Coddington attempt to impose feudal rule, the continuing imperialist pressure of Massachusetts and the United Colonies. It had only been the remarkable sturdiness of the libertarian tradition in Rhode Island that had kept the colony free despite all these dangers, and had enabled it to escape them at last; and the thought and life of Roger Williams had been perhaps the chief ingredient in that tradition. But that great tradition, strong enough to surmount other periods, was not strong enough to survive its betrayal by its own leading architect.

A third reason for Williams's shift was undoubtedly his discouragement at the retrogression of the libertarian movement in the mother country. Williams had been one of the great lights of that movement, and it in turn had inspired and nourished him — in the 1630s, the 1640s, and on his last visit to England. But then it had been an exciting, rising movement; now, because of Cromwell's betrayal, it was rapidly losing heart and being put to rout. Was the now aging Williams strong enough to keep his convictions at the same burning pitch? Was he strong enough to resist all the temptations to follow the Cromwellian path? Evidently the answer is no. We may consider, also, Williams's earlier lapse from the libertarian principle in the days of the Gorton persecution — and Williams's eventual siding with the Pawtuxet faction to expel Gorton from Providence. Purity of principle had been cast aside even then. And this indicates a fourth contributory reason for Williams's change of heart: a tendency to react testily when people more radically individualist than himself appeared upon the scene.

Williams's shift from liberty to tyranny was first revealed, sharply and startlingly, in his imposing upon the people of Rhode Island compulsory military service. The other colonies underwent conscription, but this was a strong blow to the libertarian movement of Rhode Island. Driving through a compulsory-militia bill and the selection of military officers in a Providence town meeting, Williams precipitated vehement opposition. The leaders of this libertarian opposition were the Baptists, who denounced the bearing of arms as un-Christian and conscription as an invasion of religious liberty and of the natural rights of the individual. This opposition was itself radicalized by the crisis precipitated by Williams, and the logic of the pacifist opposition to conscription and arms-bearing led them straight to the ne plus ultra of libertarianism: individualist anarchism. The opposition — led by Rev. Thomas Olney, former Baptist minister at Providence, William Harris, John Field, John Throckmorton, and Williams's own brother Robert — circulated a petition charging that "it was blood-guiltiness, and against the rule of the gospel, to execute judgment upon transgressors, against the private or public weal." In short, government itself was anti-Christian.

The emergence of William Harris as an anarchist was a particularly striking phenomenon. This contentious man, who had been one of the original few to accompany Williams to Providence and had then joined the Pawtuxet oligarchy, had been suddenly aroused by William Arnold. Harris had been one of the victims of Arnold's attempted land-grab under the aegis of Massachusetts. Apparently this sobering experience of how the state can be used to oppress as well as to confer privileges, added to his disfranchisement by Providence a dozen years before for street brawling, had set Harris on the individualist path. His Baptist pacifism completed the process.

Roger Williams bitterly condemned the "tumult and disturbance" caused by the anarchist petition — conveniently failing to place any blame for the tumult on his original imposition of conscription. And Williams sneered at the "pretense" that arms-bearing violated the petitioners's conscience. He then came up with a famous analogy to support his newfound statist philosophy. He likened human society to a ship on which all people were passengers. All may worship as they pleased, he graciously declaimed, but none is to be allowed to defy "the common laws and orders of the ship, concerning their common peace or preservation." And if any should mutiny against their "officers" or "preach or write that there ought to be no commanders or officers because all are equal in Christ, therefore no masters nor officers, no laws nor orders, no corrections nor punishments … the commanders may judge, resist, compel and punish such transgressions." In short, not only were "mutinous" actions to be punished by the state, but even the very advocacy of anarchist principles.

Williams's analogy was superficially attractive, but of dubious relevance. If society inhabits a ship and must obey "its" officers, who are the owners of the social "ship"? What gives one set of men in a country the right to claim "ownership" of that country and the people in it, and therefore the right to command and force others to obey? These were questions that Williams never bothered to raise, let alone answer. He might also have pondered in what way individual persons, pursuing their separate ways on land, were in any way comparable to a ship — and a single ship at that — which has to go in one direction at a time. Why must everyone be on one ship?

Williams's pronouncement did not convince the opposition either. The anarchists rose in rebellion against Williams's government, but were put down by force. Despite this failure, at the 1655 elections a few months later, at which Williams was reelected president, Thomas Olney was elected an assistant, and was seated even though he had participated in the uprising.

Williams now began a systematic campaign of statism in the colony. The central government was aggrandized at the expense of the home-rule rights of the towns. In May 1655 the Assembly decided to bypass its financial dependence on funds raised by the towns, and to appoint officials to levy general taxes directly on the people. The following year it was decreed that no laws of the colony may be "obstructed or neglected under pretense of any authority of any of the town charters."

Williams also moved to stiffen the laws against immorality. The Assembly decreed the compulsory licensing of liquor dealers and an excise tax on liquor. Sales of spirits to Indians were restricted severely. Punishments were intensified. The four towns had, until then, failed to provide prisons or stocks, so little was the need and so pervasive the spirit of freedom. But the colonial Assembly now moved to fill this gap and also to outlaw "verbal incivilities," which were to be punished by the stocks or payment of a fine. Adultery, which had not been subject to express penalty in the code of 1647, was now to be punished by whipping and a fine. Corporal punishment was to be levied for "loose living" and masters were to be held responsible for the "licentious careers" of servants or minor sons. On the other hand, divorce laws were liberalized, to allow for divorce for reasons of incompatibility.

It is clear that a large part of the motivation for the new statist trend was a desire to curry favor with Cromwell. It was shortly after receipt of Cromwell's official reconfirmation of Rhode Island's charter, in June 1655, that the Assembly passed the law against loose living, on information that Cromwell was restive at the state of morality in the colony. Furthermore, Cromwell in his message had ordered Rhode Island to provide against "intestine commotions." The colony swiftly passed a law against "ringleaders of factions," providing that such ringleaders, when found guilty by the General Court, were to be sent to England for trial. Here was the fulfillment of the ominous hints of Williams's ship analogy.

This article is excerpted from Conceived in Liberty (1975), chapter 24, "Rhode Island in the 1650s: Roger Williams' Shift from Liberty."

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