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Roger Williams has much yet to teach us

December 20th, 2016 by efitzpatrick

Taylor Stoermer, professor who teaches the history and modern practice of democracy at RWU and public history at Harvard University:

Roger Williams’ 413th birthday gives us the perfect opportunity to step back and ask “so what?” about his past and his present. It’s an especially appropriate occasion given the fractious nature of modern American politics, and something of a drift in our collective memory. But the perfect opportunity presented itself this semester when 75 undergraduate students at Roger Williams University actually became excited about a long and dry legal document written centuries ago, the Rhode Island Charter of 1663, and by Roger Williams himself. 

Much has been made, of course, about the charter’s language, establishing the colony’s famous “lively experiment” in religious freedom, and its longevity, given that it governed our state until 1843. Roger Williams students, though -- especially first-years living through one of the most tumultuous, confusing and disheartening elections of this or any American generation -- can find in the document a powerful resonance, not only because of the seminal role of the name they almost habitually wear on their clothing every day, and of its central influence on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but also of its ongoing, even daily relevance in their lives as products of this particular university. For a brief moment this Fall, the 353 years that divide these students from the ideas and people that created the charter evaporated, and once again the experiment was, indeed, lively.  That was especially true because, by traveling back to 1663 in their minds, they were able to go well beyond the sense of the document’s words to the powerful and inspirational sensibility of its intent, providing something of a light in dark political times.

As an historian of early America who has largely been teaching only graduate students before this year, I’ll admit to having been among those academics who intellectually relegated Roger Williams — with his infamous troublemaking, his fierce defense of “soul liberty” and the exceptional colony that he created as the consequence of both — to the fringes of American political culture, the origins and development of which, through revolution and evolution, has been my particular interest. That was largely, I believe, a product of my previous career in national politics, which inevitably and progressively produces a hearty cynicism that automatically attaches to any actor so clearly committed to the success of an idea, especially one focused so intently on a religious world that no longer exists.

But upon arriving at RWU to teach the “Challenges of Democracy,” part of our core curriculum, I found all those presumptions challenged -- by both Roger Williams’ memory and his modern students’ questions. During our intense exploration of the foundations of democracy and its practice, we covered the products of thinkers they must know, from Cleisthenes to Kennedy, but I also thought we would embrace the thinkers they should know, with none more important than the namesake of our university, the not-so-quiet guiding spirit of their student experience. After all, if it wasn’t for him, none of us would be there, quite literally, so I believed that we’d better know what we were supposed to be on about as a scholarly community.

So out came “The Bloody Tenant” of 1644 and Williams’ 1655 letter to the town of Providence, both of which make the clear case for the separation of church and state, of civil matters from spiritual ones, to secure the stability of a body politic, as “many hundred souls in one ship, whose weal and woe is common.” Most scholars — new and veteran, regardless of the number of letters after their names — usually stop there, having successfully checked a sort of mental box that can be applied to any term paper or conference discussion. 

But we went further, arriving at an unexpected destination, when we dove into the 1663 Charter, finding in its clauses both a call to arms and a cause for hope. That’s because the document lays out, perhaps more strikingly than any other, the promise created when freedoms aren’t merely defined, but the potential generated when freedoms are combined, designed to interact in ways that create a greater liberty together than they could ever separately achieve. The charter does that by not only accepting and delineating the distinctive natures of political and religious freedom, but also by demonstrating how they might produce something new in human experience. That’s because spiritual freedom was not to be narrowly confined within “matters of religion,” but, as Williams argued and James Madison later embraced, intended to encompass a broader liberty of conscience, defined in the first Encyclopedia Britannica (1771) as “a secret testimony of the soul, whereby it gives its approbation to things that are naturally good, and condemns those that are evil. See MORALS.” In that sense, it’s essential to the experiment in democratic government unleashed by the charter, and what gives Rhode Island its particular liveliness — and Williams’ centrality to American political culture. 

As my students pointed out, it also implies a healthy expectation of civility in political discourse, without which a government of the people cannot ultimately succeed, but with which it cannot fail. Other colonies might have enjoyed different levels of religious freedom, but only Rhode Island, originally a refuge for all those fleeing oppression of conscience, was specifically established as an ongoing forum for the possibilities inherent in promoting the exercise of our most fundamental liberties.

In the end, the charter, and the constitutional amendment that it inspired, is an especially representative and optimistic product of its time, the Enlightenment, when Charles II, a British monarch decidedly lacking in certain morals, and Roger Williams, his opposite in so many ways, could find common ground to try something new — to “see if a civil state can flourish in a place” if based not just on strictly defined rights, but, rather, on a robust interaction of freedoms that expressly allow for differences of opinion and diversity of belief. 

It is in that sense that we all, professors and students, discovered something rather new this semester: that Roger Williams has much yet to teach us, and Rhode Island, perhaps now more than ever, has a critical lesson the rest of America might do well to learn.