The forgotten patriot

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AS RHODE Island prepares to celebrate the 350th anniversary of an extraordinary American document, its author remains all but forgotten. In the summer of 1663, against seemingly insurmountable odds, an improbable patriot living in an unlikely place changed the course of world civilization.

Through Rhode Island’s King Charles II Charter, Dr. John Clarke convinced the king to grant religious toleration and separation of church and state to a political entity, the diminutive Colony of Rhode Island. For the first time in world history, religious freedom became fundamental to democracy. The Charter’s words soon enriched other colonial charters and eventually found their way into the writings of James Madison, architect of America’s founding documents. The 20th-century historian Thomas Bicknell wrote of religious freedom, “Its clear, full, deliberate, organized, and permanent establishment in the world can now be distinctly traced to the Colony of Rhode Island . . . under the leadership and inspiration of Dr. John Clarke, the true founder.’’

Indeed, while the idea of religious freedom had been around for millennia, legal authorization was an entirely new concept, an idea so important to liberty that it became a raison d’être for America’s Revolutionary War. Scores of celebrated thinkers such as Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and John Milton promoted religious freedom, but none had the foresight or courage to give it the force of law. Sovereigns did not suffer challenges to absolute rule lightly and in America, neither did the Puritans.

Hutchinson and Williams established civil compacts, but they proffered only limited policy for their respective settlements. While well-intentioned....

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