LETTER TO THE EDITOR

Retain our state’s historic and hallowed name as a reminder not of slavery, but of freedom

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TO THE EDITOR:

I am not a racist. I make this candid statement to avert such an unfounded charge against me in response to the position I will herein assert against changing the formal historical name of our state by deleting the words “Providence Plantations.”
Despite my well-documented lifetime of anti-racism and racial harmony, I oppose the deletion of “Providence Plantations” from the state’s name, because I also have spent a lifetime as a historian, and, therefore, oppose the rewriting of history in order to cater to present trends or sensibilities, regardless of how tragic or unsettling they have been. Presentism is History’s cardinal sin.
In 17th century terminology the English word “plantation” merely meant a settlement. Pioneers “planted” a town or colony. This act had nothing to do with slavery, despite the later use of the word to describe an agricultural enterprise that held its laborers and their families in bondage.
The Providence Plantation was benevolent and interracial. Members of the Wampanoag Tribe gave refuge to its founder Roger Williams in the harsh winter of 1635-36 as he sought to settle beyond the bounds of the intolerant Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. In gratitude for this Native American hospitality Williams later wrote: “I’ve know them to leave their house and mat to lodge a friend or stranger when Jews and Christians oft have sent Christ Jesus to the Manger.”
When Williams finally established his plantation in late spring 1636, he was welcomed by the leaders of the Narragansett tribe, Canonicus and Mianinomi. The original deed to the Providence Plantation, signed by these sachems on March 24, 1638, confirmed earlier verbal grants. “Not a penny was demanded by either,” wrote Williams. “It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island . . . it was purchased by love.”
Williams was so grateful to his Native American enablers that in 1643 he wrote and published “A Key into the Language of America,” the first English language dictionary and ethnography of Native American people. He believed that better communication would produce a bond of friendship between the natives and the English settlers. He also believed that the natives, and not the English king, held title to the land.
The Providence Plantation was not only a promising venture in interracial harmony, it also had an even greater significance.
Williams admitted that with “a sense of God’s merciful providence unto me in my distress, I called the place Providence.” His Providence Plantation became the birthplace of religious liberty in America. Williams’s plantation became a haven for persecuted religious dissenters and “a lively experiment” in church-state separation. According to its “Plantation Agreement” of 1640, the government of this settlement was allowed to rule “only in civil things.” This agreement also reaffirmed “liberty of conscience” as the plantation’s founding purpose. Two of its 39 signatories were women, indicating that such liberty extended to them.
Two great historical ironies weaken the case of the Providence Plantation deleters. First there were no Blacks in 17th century Providence. Secondly, and more important, when the colony was temporarily split by William Coddington’s vain attempt to make Newport and Portsmouth his proprietorship, the two mainland settlements — Providence Plantation and Samuel Gorton’s town of Warwick — joined in 1652 to pass America’s first anti-slavery ordinance. Unfortunately, after the reuniting of the colony, dominant Newport took a position that rendered this law obsolete.
The Providence Plantation, named for God’s Divine Providence, had momentous beginnings: it was the birthplace of religious liberty and separation of church and state; it made an all-too-brief attempt at inter-racial harmony; it allowed women a voice in governmental and religious affairs; it helped to enact America’s first anti-slave law; and it was founded and named for God’s providence by one of the greatest Americans, ever!
The produce of William’s plantation was not cotton or rice or the crops grown in the 18th century on our own South County slave farms, but rather religious liberty and interracial justice.
History is immutable. Historical writing should acknowledge that fact. Hysterical tinkering with our state’s name ignores it.
We should vote to reject Referendum No. 1 and retain our state’s historic and hallowed name as a reminder not of slavery but of freedom, or as Roger Williams called it “soul liberty.”

Patrick T. Conley, Historian Laureate of Rhode Island