J. Stanley Lemons: Preposterous attack on Providence’s founder

Roundup: Talking About History

[J. Stanley Lemons is a professor emeritus of history at Rhode Island College.]

IT IS AN INTERESTING TURN in the argument over the name of our state when the proponents of dropping “Providence Plantations” think that they have to trash and defame the founder of Providence (“ ‘Plantations’ evokes R.I.’s history of slavery,” by Julianne Jennings, Oct. 15, Commentary).

Of course, Roger Williams was no stranger to such attacks from opponents in his own time after he founded and defended the first place in modern history to separate religion from citizenship. However, if one is to make an intelligent decision about Williams’s role in the issues of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans, it is important to get the history right.

The author failed miserably on that count. It would take columns and columns to correct all of the errors, misinformation and misunderstandings, so I will deal only with a few of them.

Since the author saw fit to single me out and suggested that I must lack “intellectual integrity” if I were to defend Roger Williams, I think that I will take that risk and defend the man who began Providence Plantations.

The writer evidently knows little or nothing about Roger Williams, and quite misunderstands or misconstrues the complex history of Rhode Island during Williams’s time. She certainly misses the mark when she describes Williams as “a leader in justifying slavery in Rhode Island by selling Narragansett prisoners of war.” Williams had been an opponent of what he called “permanent slavery” all his life, and he, along with Samuel Gorton, sought to prevent slavery from taking root in the colony. He believed that no one should be enslaved for life and that the condition should not be inherited.

He was certainly a man of his time, which meant that he, along with nearly everyone else, including the Indians, accepted slavery in some form. Enslavement is what happened to losers in wars, and the Indians and Africans did this just as the Europeans did. Nobody has clean hands on this issue.

Williams had sought to prevent slavery from taking hold in his colony, but he had no control over what Newport and Portsmouth did in the 17th Century. Indeed, “Rhode Island” (which we now call “Aquidneck”) was by far the more important and powerful portion of the colony, and the “Rhode Islanders” did not accept the effort by Providence Plantations to outlaw slavery. As a result, slavery did take root, and Williams was unable to prevent it. It is preposterous to blame him somehow for the reclassification of Native Americans as “black” or “Negro” by census takers and town officials in the 18th and 19th centuries. That occurred a century after he was dead, buried and his grave forgotten.

Yes, he was involved in the selling of Narragansetts into slavery after King Philip’s War in 1676. That was right in line with the common thinking of his time, even of those who were being sold. They lost a war, and slavery was an expected result. However, the money was not used to pay the militia that attacked the Narragansetts at the Great Swamp Battle in 1675. The army that attacked the Narragansetts was from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Plymouth (supported by Pequot and Mohegan allies). Rhode Island militias were not part of it.

Rhode Island had been neutral until the United Colonies army invaded and attacked the Narragansetts, who subsequently mounted a great offensive in the spring of 1676 that resulted in the burning of Providence, including Roger Williams’s house. In the aftermath, the captives were sold to pay for the damages that they had inflicted.

Roger Williams had sought all his life to live peacefully and deal fairly with the Native Americans, and his trust was repaid with peace in Providence Plantations until King Philip’s War was brought to the colony. Unless one thinks that the Wampanoags, Niantics, Nipmucks, and Narragansetts were all fools during those 40 years of peace with Roger Williams between 1636 and 1676, one has to recognize that the Indians found him to be honest and trustworthy. He did not try to convert them to Christianity; he did not try to take their land (in fact, he was embroiled with other colonists for decades trying to defend the original Indian grant), and he had great respect for the Native Americans.

It is complete nonsense to say that he “strategized the Pequot War (1637-38).” His involvement was limited to his being asked by Massachusetts Bay to attempt to keep the Narragansetts from joining the Pequots in the run-up to the war. This was possible only because Williams was regarded as a great friend by the sachems of the Narragansetts.

Williams thought that he convinced the Narragansetts not to join the Pequots, but the Narragansetts had plenty of reasons of their own to oppose the Pequots. Only a few years earlier Narragansett lands were being invaded by the Pequots, and the Narragansetts were driven out of the Westerly area. In fact, when the Pequot War came, the Narragansetts, along with several other Indian peoples that the Pequots had abused, joined with Massachusetts to go to war against the Pequots. But none of that was Roger Williams’s doing.

Probably the most outrageous comment was: “Thus, separation of church and state for American Indians meant separation of heads from bodies and arms from limbs, and then nailing them up for all to see.” For the life of me, I cannot see any logic or connection. What is the reason for saying such a thing, except somehow to try to demean or tarnish the one concept that is regarded as America’s greatest contribution to world religion? It makes no sense and is a slander to try to connect religious freedom with warfare and slaughter.

I must say that I am chagrined that a faculty member of the college at which I taught for so many decades could be so uninformed or misinformed. My only consolation is that she does not teach history at Rhode Island College because she knows so little of it.

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Alonzo L Hamby - 10/26/2009

Wow! Tell 'em what you really think, Stan! And keep doing it!

You may succeed in getting across the idea that history has to be understood in the context of the past--although I rather doubt anyone could make that point with the author who has drawn your measured dissent.

Lon Hamby