William Babcock Weeden.

Early Rhode Island; online

. (page 7 of 29)
Online LibraryWilliam Babcock WeedenEarly Rhode Island; → online text (page 7 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

liams and Gregory Dexter generally consisted of small
freeholders admitted afterward. 9 All these men had
resolute wills, while Harris and Olney had much execu-
tive ability. This difference began early, and for some
two-score years, disputes growing out of these peculiar,
differentiated land-titles convulsed the little plantation.
Many small freeholders believed with Williams that the
lands bought from the Indians were a virtual trust for the
whole body of freemen. Proprietors on the contrary held
that the lands were administered by the central authority
in town meeting, for the benefit of private owners who
had paid for them. The economic principle of ownership
and the larger political motive involved in government,
did not coincide in practical action.

Williams was never able to induce the town meeting
to decide on any definite and particular sale of lands.

s Ante, p. 9.

o Cf. " R. I. H. S.," New Series, Vol. III., Dorr, " Proprietors and

1660] Differences of Proprietors and Citizens 79

The Proprietors insisted on their view and they alone
acted on such propositions. It appears from Williams'
own writings 10 that the smaller freeholders came to
Providence with no clear understanding of their relations
to the first Proprietors. The " Initial deed " created no
definite trust. Instead of such legal obligation, there
was in Williams' mind a moral duty — an inference. In
the absence of coercive judicial power, this was " the
weak point of all Williams' machinery."

The first organization of our Plantation in Providence
— a voluntary association or " town fellowship," without
coercive force — was ill adapted for the political regula-
tion of a community, in which there were many discon-
tented people. The small freeholders were hazy about
rights in public property and they fed their goats and
swine on the common ; taking thence, timber, firewood
and other supplies. " Common " in Providence was not
in the legal sense an " incorporeal right " of pasturage
or other profit on land of another or of the town, but it
meant unenclosed or nonimproved land claimed by the

There was a process of development going on step by
step, as was indicated in the twenty-five-acre agreement of
1645. Then the pressure of Massachusetts and the fear
of intervention on the part of England, warned both
proprietors and freeholders that mutual concession must
be made. Whatever the technical proprietary right
might be, the sensible forecasting American saw that
a monopoly could not avail, when the whole institution of
property was supported only by voluntary association.
The disputes tended toward settlement, by the creation
of new classes of citizens, who, though they might be
lower in property qualification, could vote if respectable.
io Cf. Mr. Dorr.

80 The Colony and the Town of Providence

B}' 1649, there were oxen enough in use to compel the
dwellers on Towne Streete to make a good highway before
each estate. In the autumn of 1654 there was a tumult
occasioned by a voluntary training. The record says
Thomas Olney, John Field, William Harris and others
were implicated. In the names reported, we see the pro-
prietary party, striving for order according to their
own notion. Those remonstrating: against their action
sent a paper to the town asserting " that it was blood-
guiltiness and against the rule of the gospel, to execute
judgment upon transgressors against the private or pub-
lic weal." This not only rebuked a particular executive
act, but would have upset the authority of all civil
society. These aberrations of his followers drew from
Williams an expression which the learned and sedate
Arnold well defines to be a " masterly " analysis of the
limits of civil and religious freedom. It shows moreover
that though executive facility might be lacking in Wil-
liams, the preacher and prophet yielded in him, to the
greater powers of the civilized man.

11 This admirable statement sufficiently rebukes the
main detractors of Williams. A society based on these
divine principles, could never go far astray though it
might indulge individual aberrations. A generation
later, Cotton Mather busied himself in slurring Rhode
Island for its many social defects. He wrote like one
blind, who had never seen the light.

Reinforced by this moral support of Williams, the
party in power — the proprietors — forebore wisely and con-
doned the civic offense. It was voted, " that for the
Colony's sake, who have since chosen Thomas Olney an
assistant, and for the public union and peace's sake, it
(the tumult and disturbance) should be passed by, and no

ii Ante, p. 9.

1655] Actual Living 81

more mentioned." 12 Thus, the temperance and com-
promise of true politics worked itself out, among these
hardy exponents of the human will.

The effect of such disputes on practical politics and
daily living was shown in the matter of Henry Fowler's
marriage. For the greater part of the seventeenth cen-
tury, there was so little religious organization that
banns could not be published before a congregation. 13
Accordingly, notice of this ceremony, so dear to all Anglo-
Saxons, was literally civic, and was made to the town
meeting, June 4, 1655. 14 Fowler was warned to the
Court to answer for his marriage without due publication.
He answered that, " the divisions of the town were the
cause," and the town remitted the penalty. Mr. Dorr
considers this a " bold and successful answer."

As bearing on industries we may observe that Thomas
Olney, Jr., 15 was granted a house lot in 1655 " by the
Stampers " provided he would " follow tanning." This
lot gave water power which was not all used until sixty
years later in 1705.

There was constant difficulty through sincere effort to
reconcile communistic (in our phrase) desires with pro-
prietary rights in the growing settlement. We may well
study the meager records of divisions of land, so far as
we can. We remember 16 that in 1645, twenty-five-acre
or quarter-right purchasers were admitted to " equal
fellowship of vote " with the first purchasers. This class
received in every division of land one-quarter part as

12 Staples, " Annals," p. 113.

is Marriage was legally a civil contract throughout New England.
Generally the statutes required the banns to be published at two
town meetings.

i4 Early Rec. Prov., Vol. II., p. 81.

is Dorr, "Planting and Growth," p. 50.

is Cf. Ante, p. 37.

82 The Colony and the Town of Providence

much as a full purchaser. The number of purchasers of
both kinds never exceeded 101 persons. They were ad-
mitted at various times on various terms ; the date of the
last admission cannot be determined. March 14?, 1661-2,
an act 17 was passed to divide the lands " without the
seaven mile line." In this outside division the " twenty-
five-acre men " were allowed each " a quarter part so
much as a purchaser," paying one-quarter of the charge
for confirmation. The right arose from " commoning
within the seven mile bounds," only those having full
right of commoning within, being equal to a purchaser.
The grant was allowed on condition that each should
break up one-half acre of " his home lot before next May
12 mos."

The communistic sentiment noted in the original
allotment, was manifest in various movements for demo-
cratic equality. The home-lot of five acres, the distant
meadow or six-acre lot, the " stated common lot," to-
gether with land-dividends among the proprietors, all
resulted in numerous small estates, widely separated.
Economically, the yield was not equal to that of the
Pawtuxet settlement, where the methods were more like
those of ordinary pioneers. Pawtuxet for the first eighty
years, paid nearly as much tax as the much larger Provi-
dence. And the effect on the future development of the
plantation was more important and far reaching. While
the elaborate system of home-lots created strong local
attachment it cultivated prejudice as well. All the limi-
tations of farming life, extended into, warped and
biassed a community, which should have grown into a
commercial center two generations before it actually did.
The proprietors clung to every habit and privilege,
driving the settlement outward and westward, as the

it "Early Rec. Prov.," Vol. III., 19.

1655] Life More Social than Religious 83

expanding commercial life compelled progress of some

Let us remember that, then nowhere in the world per-
haps were the two greatest motives affecting human
society at work so freely and practically as in the little
colony and especially in the plantation at Providence.
Freedom of conscience and desire for land animated the
settlers there, and often struggled for mastery. The
individual sacrifices of Williams, Gorton and the Quakers
for soul-liberty are well known.

Religious organization among the planters at Provi-
dence had little influence until commerce had fairly begun
in the eighteenth century. Politically the associated
religionists acted in the town meeting as proprietors or
freeholders. There was nothing like the direct influence
of a Puritan congregation, or its indirect movement,
in what we call public opinion. About twelve families
sympathized with Williams in forming the early Baptist
society, but the majority refrained from all religious asso-
ciation. William Harris, after Williams the most in-
fluential citizen, belonged to no religious body after
seceding from the Baptists. Williams kept on with the
Baptists only about three months, and was known as a
" Seeker." Mr. Dorr, a conservative churchman, severely
criticised all these movements, but we must consider his
facts. 18 He said the worshipers of Liberty had some
noisy declaimers like Hugh Bewett, and some political
agitators like Gregory Dexter who were revolutionary in
England. There were two Baptist churches in Provi-
dence as early as 1652 ; 19 one of the six and the other
of the five principle Baptists. The First Church kept its
continuous life. It differed from the communion in New-

is " R. I. H. S.," New Series, Vol. III., 204.
is Staples, " Annals," p. 410.

84 The Colony and the Town of Providence

port. July 10, 1681, the record 20 is preserved of a long
disputation based on scriptural texts between Pardon
Tillinghast, Gregory Dexter and Aaron Dexter of
Providence and Obadiah Holmes of Newport. Providence
contended, whether " repenting believing Baptized Dis-
ciples are visible members of Christ's body and have right
to Fellowship breaking of bread and prayer, we deny
according to our understanding of your sense."

Political force as embodied in citizens, is necessarily
wiser and more enlightened than the mere grasp of a land-
holder. It was obliged to recognize that man as well as
property must join in making a state, and that actual
freemen must be encouraged. At an early (unknown)
date, the suffrage had been restricted to married men.
The young men — probably then in the majority — were
discontented under the restriction for nine years. In the
fifties it was decreed that " all inhabitants not as yet
accounted freemen should be liable to do service not only
military but mending roads and like hard work." In the
mid-century, the plantation had three distinct classes of
voters not sympathizing, 21 proprietors, quarter-rights
men, and small freeholders at large. These divisions not
only marked estates, but social distinction and privilege
as well. The newest freeholders were smallest in estate
and least in political influence. Meetings sometimes in-
cluded proprietors in the same persons. In later days,
only proprietors could vote on questions involving " com-
mon lands."

Inevitably there was political agitation and social
friction between these varied and variable persons seeking
liberty and the practical privileges of freemen. Each
home-circle was a debating school where talk served instead

20 Moses Brown MSS., Vol. XVIII, p. 247, R. I. H. S.
2i Staples, p. 218.

1655] How Politics Were Made 85

of books to draw out the mind. As an ample fire roared
in the massive chimney, or a blazing pine knot lighted the
eager faces, all contemporary history, all theology in
fixed fate or foreknowledge absolute, was discussed by
these new Americans. But at the town mill these
educated wranglers met in more serious controversy. The
intense English ambition for possessing land, the political
passion of a freeman, were here exercised in exciting dis-
cussions. Sometimes opinion degenerated into license,
as we have noted at the training in autumn 1654. But
generally questions were threshed out in these whole-
some if exciting discussions, and were decided in some
fashion at the turbulent town meeting.

Manners as well as morals and statutes were matter
of lively interest. The natural man was disciplined in
some way, and reduced into new forms of social order.
To wit " that they that whisper or disturb ye Court or
useth nipping terms, shall forfeit six pence for every
fault." More strenuous was it, when if " any man shall
strike another person in ye Court, he shall either be fined
ten pounds or whipt."

We cannot repeat too often, nor mark too forcibly,
these new and complex modes for educating and evolving
a citizen ; for forging out a working member of the body
politic. All these moral and political influences acting
on the first generations of planters, positively affected
their descendants. State heredity is even more powerful
than individual descent. Roger Williams, Gorton,
George Fox, Coddington and William Harris in the
seventeenth century, issued in Stephen Hopkins of the
eighteenth, and Thomas W. Dorr, of the nineteenth. The
latter, a conscientious patriot in theory, in practice be-
came a civic rebel.

The pregnant disputes between proprietors and free-

86 The Colony and the Town of Providence

holders were gradually wearing out and a final process
of economic adjustment prevailed over the crude com-
munistic theories, which had vexed the life of the early
plantation. The date is not positive, but about 1665. 22
A town ordinance laid out a four-mile line within the old
seven-mile line. A second or " 50 acre division was made
by lot to every ' purchaser.' " Lime rock was to be left
in common. As usual, discussion outside had prepared
the voters for these propositions. The result in town
meeting was concord and not the strife of old time. The
day arrived, with no lack of quorum at the inn, where
the freemen assembled; while intense curiosity preserved
order. Before formalities began " arose the gaunt and
picturesque figure of the founder." Williams' stock argu-
ments against the " usurpation of the proprietors "
would not hold now, for he was partaking as a " pur-
chaser." He " witnessed " against the " prophaning of
God's worship by casting lots." The stalwart prophet had
nothing more to say of " up streams without limits " or of
the " fellowship of vote."

We may note a very interesting episode in crude law-
making. May 27, 1667, 23 in town meeting a will was
made for Nicholas Power, who died intestate some ten
years earlier. Endeavors had been made meanwhile to
settle the estate under the general laws of the colony ; but
the widow would not consent and the council had not
power to compel her. At last a will was made as above
stated. As Judge Staples 24 remarks, where the power
was obtained, does not appear, but it was exercised
repeatedly, not only in Providence, but in other towns,

22 "Early Rec," Vol. III., 93.

23 " Early Rec. Prov.," Vol. I., 31.

24 " Annals," p. 124.

1667] The Town Makes Wills 87

" Wills so made were not simply divisions and distribu-
tion of the intestates' estate among heirs, but in some
instances specific bequests and devises were made, and
estates for life, in tail and fee created, as the council
supposed the interests of all concerned required." This
practice continued into the nineteenth century in the
smaller towns. It was a return to social ethics, when
the law for individuals failed to award justice. It served
the time well, and was almost never abused.

Staples 25 cites in 1662 a privilege given one Hacldeton
to burn lime, from stone taken from the commons, as the
earliest notice of that manufacture. The kiln was near
Scoakequanoisett. All lime rock was for some years
kept in common, but was ultimately conveyed with the
lands. Mr. Bowditch thinks lime from shells or probably
from stone was made as early as 1648. There was little
lime produced until brick building was introduced a half
century later. Probably the earliest list of tools belonged
to John Clausen, a Dutch carpenter, about 1660. 26
Froe, bench hook hammer, 1| x 1 inch augers, narrow axe,
hallowing plane, cleaving and moulding do, three other
sorts, chizells, gouge, three Brest wimble bitts, a joynter
plane. This list shows the condition of carpentry. Wm.
Carpenter, an English-bred carpenter, came from Ames-
bury and built a house for Wm. Harris before 1671

The authority of the crown was demonstrated for the
first time, by the visit in 1665 of a royal commission—
Nicolls, Cartwright and others. The commissioners met
a better reception than in Massachusetts, and their pro-
posals for the general guidance of the General Assembly

25 Staples, " Annals," p. 613.

26 Field, " Providence," Vol. III., 583.

88 The Colony and the Town of Providence

were promptly accepted, as being " in perfect unison with
the principles of Rhode Island." 27

Much controversy with Connecticut for possession of
the Njarragansett country, vexed the colony for several
years. Connecticut was favored by some of the local
residents about Wickford and incidentally by William
Harris. He offended his own colony so much by this
action that he was imprisoned at Newport and not al-
lowed bail. He was finally released and restored to office,
when the Quakers controlled the politics of the colony
in 1672.

An indication and permanent sign of progress in the
plantation was in the erection of Weybosset Bridge in
1672. This was a great effort for the little community.
Expedients for a bridge had been maintained by tolls
from strangers and contributory work from townsmen ;
one day's work of man and team per year, for each family.
Roger Williams showed his customary public spirit, 28
by assuming the burden of the bridge under these con-
ditions in 1667-8. A committee had previously failed in
getting support to care for the bridge.

After Williams and Gorton, the most positive and
formative influence in early Rhode Island, was the society
of Friends. The " cruel and sanguinary laws " of Massa-
chusetts drove out these pilgrims — harmless in our view
— and they flocked into Newport. Here they found a
free atmosphere and many people with minds open for the
reception of their ideas. In England, the seventeenth
century had gathered from Geneva and Holland the most
illuminating as well as the most vague doctrines of the
Protestant faith. Anabaptist and Antinomian — though
frequently used — were vituperative names, rather than

27 Brigham, " R. I.," p. 113.

28 Staples, " Annals," p. 144.

1672] Quaker Influence 89

terms philosophical and descriptive. In England and
America, these floating doctrines were best represented
by the society of Seekers with which Roger Williams
finally associated himself. But Williams never could
formulate his own large conceptions into dogmas capable
of founding solid societies.

These elevated incorporeal ideas possessing the in-
dividual soul were gradually concentrated in the " inner
light " of George Fox. This asserted a constant com-
munion of the spirit with its creator — moving independ-
ent of all constraint and of all ecclesiastical control.
That mere crotchets should incumber these true spiritual
conceptions was inevitable. But notwithstanding some
individual vagaries, the Friends or Quakers as then
called were an immense influence for good, and especially
in our colony. As above indicated in treating of educa-
tion, 29 the Friends self-regulated in themselves were
especially beneficent in a self-governed community that
lacked self-control.

At Newport, the seed sown by Anne Hutchinson had
prepared ample' growths for the Quaker propaganda.
In the course of development the Baptist church had been
separated, a part holding to regular ordinances under
John Clarke, and others like Coddington and Easton
adopting Quaker tenets. The great apostle of the
" inner light," George Fox, visited there in 1672, and
was the guest of Governor Easton. For the reasons
stated, he found himself quite at home and the " people
flocked in from all parts of the island." When he came
to consider Providence, though it had no established
church and no hierarchy, he soon discovered theological
wheels within wheels, and that every man his own priest
may become a very priestly factor. On his visit there

29 Ante, p. 68.

90 The Colony and the Town of Providence

the reformer said the people " were generally above the
priests in high notions." They came to his meeting to
dispute and, in his own words, he was " exceeding hot, and
in a great sweat. But all was well, the disputers were
silent, and the meeting quiet." 30 The silence could not
last long, for the storm was gathering. Williams chal-
lenged Fox on fourteen points of doctrine; seven to be
publicly discussed in Newport and seven in Providence.
Williams rowed himself to Newport in one day — a won-
derful feat for a man over seventy. Fox had departed,
but his followers debated with Williams for three days
and then concluded at Providence. The result was an
easy victory for each, in the opinion of both. Williams
summed up in a volume, whose title " George Fox digged
out of his Burrowes " shows the cheap controversial wit
of the time. Fox with his disciple Burnyeat replied in
" A New England Firebrand Quenched."

The arguments and figures of rhetoric stand to this
day, but the propaganda then went with the Quakers.
Men like William Harris in Providence took up the doc-
trines. A week-day meeting was established in Provi-
dence in March, 1701, and a " fair large meeting house
was built in 1704." 31 From 1672 to 1676, the colonial
politics were controlled by the Friends, and it was mainly
due to their non-combative policy that the colony was so
poorly prepared to meet King Philip's War.

In 1665, the controversy began in 1657, 32 between
William Harris and the party of freeholders was much
aggravated, and it lasted until his death in 1681, at
times convulsing the whole colony. 33 As has been noted, 34

so Brigham. " R. I.," p. 117.

si Staples, " Annals," pp. 423, 424.

32 Staples, " Annals," p. 118.

33 Brigham, pp. 113-116.
s* Ante, p. 79.

1667] Characteristics of Wm. Harris 91

the Proprietors and Freeholders were generally at vari-
ance, but these contests involved great personal bitterness
as well as self-interest.

William Harris with his brother Thomas came in the
ship Lyon. According to tradition, the family were
" harsh and irregular of feature, brawny, resentful and
pertinacious in temperament, and ?< in speech rasping."
Harris' own writing is preserved; it is most individual,
thoroughly his own and is even more difficult of interpre-
tation than the ordinary chirography of the seventeenth
century. It is thoroughly elegant, as would hardly be ex-
pected from the above rendering of the family traits. 35
Like many strong men of his time, he was educated by
affairs and not by the schools, had great facility in busi-
ness and a fair knowledge of English statute law. His
books 36 were few but useful ; bibles, concordance, diction-
ary, surveyors learning and legal treatises including Coke
on Lyttleton, medical treatises, several on " faith,"
" nature's Explecation," " the effect of war," " contem-
plation moral and devine." Evidently this was a collec-
tion much used by a busy man of affairs who thought for

The main contention of Harris was that the " initial
deed " in its clause " up the stream of Patuxet and
Patuckett without limits we might have for our use of
cattle " gave not only a right of pasturage, but the
land in fee simple. To further this the contestants
bought " confirmation deeds " both for lands and rights
of pasturage of the degenerate sachems coming after

35 " He brought to whatever he undertook the resources of a
great mind and, to all appearance, the honest convictions of an
earnest soul. On this account he was a more dangerous opponent
and required stringent measures to suppress the errors of his political
creed."— Arnold, Vol. I., 262.

Online LibraryWilliam Babcock WeedenEarly Rhode Island; → online text (page 7 of 29)