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Monday, February 18, 2013
OP-ED

Letter From Europe

Rhode Island, Roger Williams and democratic values

Men and women from across the United States who are proud of their much cherished values of freedom of conscience, equal rights for all and separation between Church and State will soon be celebrating the 350th anniversary of the official recognition of the establishment of Rhode Island as an English colonial settlement in North America. (The royal charter was granted in 1663.) I am writing this short piece to pay tribute to the man behind this project, Roger Williams, the founder of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Now, the obvious questions are: Why in the history of the evolution of democratic values in America is this event so important? What is so special about Rhode Island? Who was Roger Williams? What role did he play in the fields of social justice and democracy in America?

A bit of history will help.

As everybody knows, Jamestown occupies an important place in the history of European colonization of North America not only because it was the first English colony (established in 1607) that survived the onslaught of hunger, disease, and weather, but also because it is widely acclaimed as a bastion of Christian (Anglican version) civilization in North America where the first European-style democratic system was introduced.

On the flip side of Jamestown's history are the facts that it practiced a very limited sort of democracy. It started a process which led to the virtual extermination of the original inhabitants of North America, the so-called American Indians and that it also introduced African slavery and racism in North America. In order to perpetuate a system of "exploitation based on racial logic", the settlers actively promoted the theory that race was something fixed and immutablethat God had created His chosen people, " the whites" to rule the world. This was the beginning of a new form of racism which was widely used to justify European colonialism all over the world.

Plymouth was founded in 1620 by Pilgrims (separatists from the Church of England), who fled from England to avoid religious persecution and death. These "separatists", who were much influenced by French Calvinism, repudiated the state church, (the Anglican Church) and formed voluntary congregations.

In the United States, where Puritanism and Presbyterian Church are strong, many American historians tend to undermine the existence of the history of Jamestown by creating the foundational myth around Mayflower Pilgrims and Plymouth. The so-called puritan way of life and the famous American work ethics symbolize the importance of Plymouth in American history. Thanksgiving Day, which is celebrated as one of the most important national holidays in the US, was instituted by the Pilgrims in 1621.

Unfortunately, although they themselves had fled from England because of religious persecution, very soon the Pilgrims established a rigid theocratic society in Plymouth which became intolerant of other faiths and races.

It was under these circumstances that in 1631, Roger Williams, a Cambridge-educated minister arrived in Boston from England. Even though Williams was a devout Christian, he was a free thinker, a non-conformist and most certainly too progressive for his time. In Plymouth, he insisted that the land belonged to the Indians, therefore, without due compensation paid to them, the English king´s land grants could not give a just title to the land. He was also a firm believer in concepts like freedom of conscience, separation of state and church and equality of all men and women before the law. In the words of the American writer James Carroll, who, outside the United States is often acclaimed as one of the most eloquent voices of American conscience, "He (Williams) saw that the rights he claimed for himself belonged to all, including Africans and women."

Williams was banished from Plymouth by the authorities because of his views which were considered not only radical but also dangerous. In 1636, he fled from Plymouth and found refuge in territories still controlled by the Indians. There he made friends with the Indians, learnt their language, earned their trust and bought land--due compensation was paid to them -- to establish a settlement which later came to be known as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

This was an unusually tolerant society, probably more tolerant than the modern American society where one has to be careful to utter the word "Islam" or "Muslim" and where people belonging to the minority communities still suffer prejudice on a regular basis. Williams saw to it that besides the Separatists, the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Quakers, the Baptists, the Jews, the Muslims, even the pagans and atheists could live in peace and harmony in Rhode Island. That was his idea of freedom of conscience. It took a civil war, the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of human lives and ultimately, the death by assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of all American presidents to pass the 13th Amendment to the US constitution in 1865 to abolish slavery in the United States which was started by the settlers in Jamestown. Now consider the magnitude of the event that took place in Rhode Island in 1652-- more than two hundred years before the adoption of the 13th Amendment--when the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a bill outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude. It is worth mentioning here in this context that the state of Rhode Island ratified the constitution of the United States only after the Bill of Rights was incorporated in 1790. Williams went so far as to inculcate his fellow citizens with the idea that in a truly democratic society one should be tolerant of even the intolerant.

It is a pity that greater recognition has not been accorded to Williams for his pioneering work in the fields of social justice and liberal democracy. While celebrating the 350th anniversary of the official birth of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the Americans would do well to remember Roger Williams with love and gratitude for his enormous contribution to democracy in America.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.

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