Roger Williams and American Democracy

I finished listening to the audio-book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. The more I study history the more I discover all that I wasn’t taught in my public education. I didn’t know anything about Roger Williams or Rhode Island prior to this book.

The first American radical that awoke me to the American radical tradition was Thomas Paine. It blew my mind that ideas so far to the left could be found at the founding of the country. Paine makes today’s Democrats today look like conservatives. Since then, I’ve discovered such radical thought (and action) goes even further back into colonial history.

The Quakers and William Penn’s experiment was the second radical influence I learned about. We think of Quakers being tame these days, but back then they were among the worst troublemakers around. They would protest using almost any means available to them, including stripping naked and parading through towns while preaching about fallen man and fallen society. Puritans hated them to no end. Quakers were turned away, imprisoned, fined, maimed, and killed. And Quakers kept coming back for more — they took martyrdom seriously.

What I discovered in this recent book is that Roger Williams is the only colonial founder who didn’t mistreat Quakers. Williams came to America as a Puritan and despised Quakers, but there was a difference. He was mentored by Sir Edward Coke, the famous common law lawyer. Also, he was heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the famous scientist and arch-rival of Coke. These were the type of influences that would inspire the Levellers and others involved in the English Civil War. Williams came to America before revolution erupted, but he brought the societal conflicts with him.

Williams believed everyone should have equal freedom: Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Quakers, atheists, etc. He abolished chattel slavery for all races, witchcraft trials, most capital punishment, and imprisonment for debt. He defended free speech. For example, instead of punishing Quakers, he invited them to a public debate. Most importantly, he valued fair treatment under the law and legal procedure, values he learned from Coke’s defense of common law.

Basically, Williams was articulating so-called Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.

Despite being a Puritan, most other Puritans didn’t appreciate Williams any more than they were fond of the Quakers. He was a strong critic of the theocratic tendencies of the Puritan colonies, just as he was against mixing of religion and politics back in England. Williams, although inheriting much from his own mentors, took the ideal of freedom further than anyone before.

One example had to do with Native Americans. Williams initially wanted to convert the natives to Christianity, but he changed his mind once he came to know Native Americans and their culture. He concluded it would be hypocritical for him to try to force his religion onto others, even with the best of intentions. He saw how the Native Americans were mistreated and he became a strong defender of native land rights. He maintained peaceful relationships between natives and settlers for many decades and remained neutral during King Philip’s War.

Even when the Native American’s attacked Providence and burned many houses down, including William’s, he still couldn’t bring himself to blame them for their acts of desperation. During that incident, he went out to the warriors and convinced them that the Rhode Island colonists weren’t their enemy and they were left alone after that. All in all, Native Americans treated Williams better than many of his fellow colonists. For example, earlier when he was banished from Massachusetts, the Wampanoag tribe took him in for the winter. He never forgot the kindness of his Native American friends and allies.

The only colonial leader before him that treated the natives as fairly was Samuel de Champlain. A really good book, Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fischer, is written about Champlain’s experiment in French Canada. Champlain, like Williams, lived with Native Americans and studied their way of life. Champlain went even further in that he sought to create a shared culture where the French settlers and Native Americans would exchange children to be raised in each other’s communities, and he encouraged the French to learn the Native American languages. Later on, William Penn attempted to have similar good relations with the natives, although it was becoming increasingly difficult with the growing population of colonists, especially the Scots-Irish immigrants.

Both Williams and Champlain had personally experienced the violent oppression that could be caused by the combining of religion and politics, and so both wished to create havens in the New World. Williams was the first to use the phrase, “wall of separation”. He didn’t think government should even promote religious values. Government should do basic governing and that was it. He thought you shouldn’t attempt to force people to do or not do something simply because that is what your religion teaches. Each person should do their own thing as far as possible and leave others alone.

He took separation of church and state very seriously, took it to its furthest end in fact. He thought religion should be a purely individual matter. After briefly becoming Baptist, he never became affiliated with another church for the rest of his life. He came to the conclusion that no church had the right to claim to represent Jesus Christ’s teachings or to rule in place of God. He disagreed with Quakers that religion was solely based on a personal relationship to God, but he did believe that Jesus’ teachings via Scripture trumped any worldly organization including churches.

We often think of the American Revolution as the product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers without a doubt contributed much. However, the basic elements of a new society were much earlier planted in the colonies. The charter for Providence Colony even referred to it as a democracy: “The form of government established is democratical”. Besides Paine, most of the later American founders were wary of democracy. Nonetheless, Roger Williams’ experiment was the most direct precedent for the American Revolution, and indeed Rhode Island declared independence two months before any other colony.

There have been many social experiments in American history, during and after the colonial era. What makes Roger William’s social experiment stand out is that it was so successful. If it had failed, American society might have turned out far differently. He demonstrated that democracy could work and inspired many to follow his example.

14 thoughts on “Roger Williams and American Democracy

  1. That’s interesting that Roger Williams was the only colonial founder who didn’t mistreat Quakers and that was because he was he was mentored by Sir Edward Coke and influenced by Francis Bacon, and they were rivals. This is interesting since I’ve never heard of Williams but it seems he is an important figure in the forming of America. I’ll have to see what books I can find about him so I can learn more about him since I really love learning about American history.

    • In school, I though I hated history. It turns out I only hated how it was taught. History teachers rarely taught any of the interesting parts. Maybe it has to do with the limits and pressure teachers experience. They are forced to teach to tests. That is too bad because every American should learn this kind of thing. It really is fascinating.

    • Skimming this post again, one point jumps out at me. More than a century before the American Revolution, there were those promoting not only separation of church and state (something we can also find with Thomas Morton and Merry Mount) but democracy itself. Roger Williams specifically spelled it out in his constitution by calling it ‘democratical’.

      Later on, the likes of Thomas Paine (who even his detractors admitted was central to the success of the American Revolution) spoke openly of democracy. But even the other founding fathers were speaking of representative democracy when they mentioned ‘republicanism’.

      The challenge of democracy was in America right from the beginning. That was magnified by the fact many of the native tribes were organized democratically. The American Founders took some of their democratic ideas (e.g., separation of powers) from Native Americans. And of course, they were well aware of their own democratic traditions coming from early Britain. The practice of political activism around liberty trees is based on practices that originated with the Germanic tribes.

      Right-wingers like to pretend liberals invented democracy in the 20th century and then forced onto American society. That is plain ignorant. But that is the problem with an education system that doesn’t educate the citizenry about the history of their own country.

  2. I am an English Instructor, and we are currently covering Thomas Paine and having covered Williams in the previous unit, I kept noticing similarities between the two, so I set off to find any evidence of influence on Paine via Williams. I found this blog entry, and it is excellent. You show the radical associations between the two men extremely well. In fact, I plan to link this blog to the online companion for the class. Excellent work!

    Btw, do you know of any direct influence on Paine from Williams? Did Paine read Williams? Surely, he was aware of him.

    • I’m glad you found the post of use. I can only point toward similarities. I can’t prove any connection. Paine surely would have been aware of colonial history and so would have known of Williams. But he may never have read his writings. Then again, Paine was well read as can be discerned from his own writings, despite not flaunting his knowledge. He preferred to claim common sense was his inspiration.

      Some of that common sense, though, might have had common origins with the influences on Williams. Considering Williams was originally a Puritan, it might be noted that Paine grew up in Thetford which is in East Anglia where Puritanism originated. Besides being shaped by his Quaker father, Paine might have picked up on the Puritan strain of religious dissent that probably still could be felt in that part of England. Just a possibility to consider.

      After reaching adulthood, Paine also spent time in Lewes. It was another location of religious dissent during the English Civil War. It was there that Paine belonged to the Headstrong Club, a debating society. His radicalism began to more fully take shape around that time. It was while there that he took his first overtly political action in writing a petition to Parliament and then delivered it by hand, an action that caused his loss of employment and a period of poverty before meeting Benjamin Franklin and heading to the colonies.

      Williams’ earlier colonial world was still a living memory in Paine’s lifetime. Franklin, for example, was a boy living in Pennsylvania when William Penn died. And the English Civil War was the direct precursor to the American Revolution. So many religious dissenters having escaped to the colonies during that prior era of conflict made it an influential part of American culture. It was the same basic world of religious dissent that both Williams and Paine experienced.

      Like Williams’ “democratical” experiment of a “wall of separation” between church and state, the Pennsylvania Quakers had a similar culture. They did begin as the local ruling elite, but it never fit their religious outlook. They were the only colonial elite who willingly stepped down from power. Even going back to Penn, there never was a desire to enforce their religion onto others. Quakerism was a source of much radical thought, such as abolitionism and what would later become considered a liberal idea of a constitution as a living agreement (see Quaker Constitutionalism by Jane E. Calvert).

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