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Centuries-old state charter commemorates ‘living experiment’

A new State House exhibit features the original 1663 charter alongside other historical state documents

Centuries ago, the colony that would become the state of Rhode Island earned the nickname the “lively experiment” ­— a title stemming ­­from the 1663 charter’s unusual nature and stance on government. In honor of that document’s 350th anniversary, the official Charter Museum opened at the State House on June 22.

The original charter has been moved from a hallway in the State House to its very own exhibit space. On the first floor of the building, an unobtrusive door now opens onto a small but dramatically lit room featuring the charter and other relevant documents and artifacts from the time period.

The main points of the charter emphasized in the exhibit are displayed on the wall: “… our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion …”

The “charter succeeded in doing something that had not been done in the world,” said Charter Commission member Ted Widmer, who is also the former director of the John Carter Brown Library and assistant to President Christina Paxson for special projects. “It created a safe place for everyone to worship.”

When Massachusetts banished future Rhode Island state founder Roger Williams in the winter of 1635, he found himself dissatisfied with how closely church and state were intertwined in the colony, according to the exhibit. He sought to create a settlement whose members could follow any religion without fear of persecution and settled in present-day Providence in 1636. King Charles II approved Rhode Island’s charter 27 years later, and thus a new type of settlement was born — one unique to colonial America.

Despite the inclusive charter, Williams was not an idealist who believed all religions should be accepted on a personal level. “Williams, at times, disagreed (theologically) with the people in Rhode Island, but he was always adamant that people be given full religious liberty,” said Linford Fisher, assistant professor of history. This was a value hard to find in 17th century colonial America, let alone the world, Fisher said.

Artifacts in the exhibit are grouped under different headings such as “New Beginnings” and “Practicing Tolerance” and lead up to the charter. These groupings feature parts of Williams’ original writings, compacts between Rhode Island settlers and local Native Americans, and objects such as Williams’ compass and the seal from the original charter box.

“It’s a really great display,” said Emma Dickson ’16, who interned for the State House this summer. “I was really impressed that they had physical objects and not just remnants of old texts explaining the history.”

While the main purpose of the museum — to celebrate a state dedicated to religious freedom — is easily achieved, the museum does not include every aspect of Rhode Island’s establishment. It overlooks struggles undergone with natives, violations of the charter’s ideals and any issues maintaining religious freedom, such as the recent struggle for marriage equality.

The museum also succeeds in instilling a sense of pride in Rhode Islanders — most museum goers left the charter room smiling a little wider and chatting amongst themselves about their mighty, little state.


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