When it comes to the origins of Liberty in the United States, people have many ideas. Some count it from the founding of Jamestown Colony. There is some justice in that since it’s the step that set everything else in motion. Some count it from the Mayflower arriving at Plymouth, based on the (largely mistaken) idea that the Pilgrims were looking for religious freedom. And there is some justice in that since while they were looking for religious separatism rather than freedom, it did set in motion events that would lead to religious freedom in the United States. Some count it from Philadelphia and the Second Continental Congress, since that is the time and place where the rebelling British colonies declared themselves free and independent of British rule and the reasons they listed for that declaration (particularly if you consider the first draft of the declaration and grievances that, sadly, had to be removed to get everyone to sign on to the document) amount to Britain denying the people their liberty. And some will count it from the Constitutional Convention (also in Philadelphia) which established a government of strictly limited powers leaving most of the people to their own devices for most things.
And some, of course, go back farther, to the writings of Cicero “On the Commonwealth”, to the Dutch Republics, to Britains Magna Carta, to Greek Democracies and Aristotles writings on Politics, and to the Bible and the dispute between rule by judges and rule by kings. All of those, of course had their role to play.
However, I contend that a much more direct and solid birthplace can be found in the smallest of the colonies, and today the smallest state: Rhode Island.
To explain that we first have to go back to the first New England colony Plymouth colony, founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were an offshoot from the Puritan sects of the Church of England. Whereas the Puritans wanted to reform or “Purify” (hence the name) the Church of England (Anglican Church), the Pilgrims were more of a separatist bent. And so when the Pilgrims were followed by Puritans establishing the Massachusetts colony, the stage was set for conflict between the two branches.
For the most part the conflict was relatively low key. But it was into this kettle that Roger Williams was dropped. Williams, had taken Holy Orders in the Angican church but had become a Puritan while studying at Cambridge, thus ending any hope for real advancement within the Anglican church of the time. And while he did not join the first wave, remaining in England under Archbishop William Laud became untenable and so he emigrated in 1630.
Williams was offered a position in the Boston church to fill in for John Wilson while the latter returned to England to bring his family back to New England but turned it down because it was an “unseparated church”, he having moved beyond simple puritanism to actual separation from the Angican church. In addition, Williams was taking a position of separation of Church and State. He began to put forward the idea that Civil magistrates should not enforce religious law, things like Sabbath breaking, idolatry, false worship, and even blasphemy. He also presented the idea that each individual should be free to follow his own conscience in matters of religion.
These views put Williams in direct opposition to local Puritan leadership who still wanted to purify rather than separate from the Church of England, they considered their way the “true” way and were convinced it was a holy mission to impose that way on others, and thought what better way to apply civil law that in the enforcement of God’s law as they saw it?
Williams was offered a teaching position in Salem, also of a separatist bent, but after the Boston leadership applied pressure on them Salem withdrew their offer. Williams instead moved to Plymouth, then a separate colony from Massachusetts, which welcomed him. However, he soon came to the conclusion that even Plymouth was insufficiently separated from the Church of England. Furthermore, he started questioning the very idea of King’s charters, granting lands to colonists. The locals, in his view, already owned the land. What gave the King the right to hand it out? Within a year he had moved back to Salem.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony (of which Salem was a part) were unhappy with Williams’ return. Over the course of the next few years he would be called into court several times, finally being convicted of sedition and heresy and that he was spreading “new, diverse, and dangerous opinions.” They ordered him banished, fully expecting him to be sent back to England to face “justice” there. Instead, he fled southward.
Williams, with a few others, bought a parcel of land from the local natives and set up his own colony of Providence on Aquidneck Island. Here, he established his ideas of separation of church and state, religious liberty allowing all men (and, indeed, including women in that) to follow their own consciences on religious matters,
The new colony, which would eventually become Rhode Island, welcomed the religious and political dissidents from the neighboring colonies. Anne Hutchinson and her antinominarians settled here. William Coddington, John Clarke, Philip Sherman and others. Williams insisted that any land they use be bought from the natives and not simply “granted” by some Royal Charter.
Over time, Williams views on personal conscience spread outward from religious liberty to a more generally libertarian view. As he wrote in “The Bloody Tenet yet more Bloody”:
And yet to what other end have or doe (ordinarily) the Kings of the Earth use their power and authority over the Bodies and Goods of their Subjects, but for the filling of their paunches like Wolves or Lions, never pacified unlesse the peoples bodies, goods and Souls be sacrificed to their God-belly, and their owne Gods of profit, honour, pleasure &c…
If the Report of Mr Cottons interpreting that Scrip∣ture of Serving God with all our Might, &c. be true, to wit, of* employing our Civill Armes and Forcesto the utmost, and that against other Peoples professing Idolatrie and Antichristianisme: His Conscience (as I conceive) must needs force on and presse after, an universall Conquest of all Consciences, and under that (like those bloudie Spaniards, Turkes and Popes) lay un∣der that faire cloake, the Ruleand Dominion over all the Nations of the Earth…
Christ Jesus was of another opinion (who distinguisheth between Gods due and Caesars due: and therfore (with respect to*God his cause and Religion) it is not lawfull to deprive Caesar the Civil Magisteate, nor any that belong to him of their Civil and Earthly rights. I say in this respect, although that a man is not Godly, a Christian, sincere, a Church member, yet to deprive him of any Civill right or Priviledge, due to him as a Man, a Subject, a Citizen, is to take from Caesar, that which is Caesars, which God indures not though it be given to himselfe.
Governments (“Kings” as used here) tend to their own self-aggrandizement. However, in Williams view of Christianity (his own religious belief) depriving a man of his liberty is not “Godly”, nor legitimate civil authority. It is to “Take from Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. Clearly, he indicates that each man is a Caesar unto himself.
In this passage you find the germ, put in religious terms but no less valid for being so, of the words that would find their way through Jefferson’s pen “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Sadly, in time Williams, himself would turn away from these principles. He would become a persecutor of the very libertarian ideals he put forward in the founding and early days of Rhode Island. However, the ideals would not die. They would live on despite his own betrayal of them and they would make their way into the founding of a nation and find their expression in the words and deeds of later generations of patriots, however flawed those individuals might themselves be, men like Samuel Adams and his cousin John, like Patrick Henry, like Thomas Jefferson, like Richard Henry Lee, and many others. For all their flaws they set the new nation on a path that would lead to more freedom for more people than the world had ever known.
And Roger Williams and the founding of Rhode Island set it all in motion.