Sarah Vowell: I stand up to defend Rhode Island's name

Roundup: Talking About History

LAST month, Rhode Island’s Legislature approved a proposal to allow a ballot referendum in 2010 to change the state’s official name from “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to simply “State of Rhode Island.” According to The Providence Journal, “Proponents of the name change say the word ‘plantations’ is offensive to the African-American community because it conjures up images of slavery.”

On the one hand, as a person who spends a minimum of 20 minutes a week furious with President William McKinley, I feel that these, the historically minded, bleeding-heart hand-wringers leading this movement, are my people.

On the other hand, as New York City’s biggest, or perhaps only, fan of the founding of Providence Plantations, I feel compelled to stick up for its noble legacy of religious freedom.

As your average Rhode Island government spokesman and/or persnickety history buff will point out, in 17th-century English, “plantation” was a synonym for “colony” or “settlement” — just as a legal charter was a “patent” and “whore of Babylon” was a kicky pet name for the pope.

In his farewell sermon to the colonists leaving England to settle Massachusetts Bay in 1630, “God’s Promise to His Plantation,” the Rev. John Cotton evoked the word’s biblical roots, quoting the second Book of Samuel: “I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and I will plant them.” ...

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