Rhode Island’s Royal Charter
The Royal Charter of 1663 was a document granted by King Charles II of England to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It allowed settlers in Rhode Island to govern their own colony and guaranteed their individual freedom of religion. It was the first charter to offer this degree of freedom to a colony.
The idea of creating a community that allowed individuals to follow the religion of their choice was brought to Rhode Island by Roger Williams in 1636. Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for his “new and dangerous opinions,” Williams founded the town of Providence on land granted to him by Narragansett chiefs Canonicus and Miantonomi. Seven years later Williams returned to England to obtain an official patent or charter for the colony. Parliament’s committee on foreign plantations granted a patent to “the incorporation of Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay in New England.” It united Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport, and protected them from encroachment by other colonies.
After civil war and years of upheaval, the English monarchy was restored when Charles II came to the throne in 1660. Three years later he granted Rhode Island its Royal Charter, becoming the first monarch in history to afford individuals the right to practice the religion of their choice without any interference from the government. This freedom was extremely radical in an age marked by wars of religion and persecution of people for religious beliefs. The Charter holds a unique place in the evolution of human rights in the modern world.
Primary Source Documents
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Parliamentary Patent, 1643
In 1643 Roger Williams obtained Rhode Island’s first governing document, the Parliamentary Patent of 1643. It united the towns of Providence, Portsmouth, and Newport.
Rhode Island’s Royal Charter, 1663
The Royal Charter guaranteed religious freedom for Rhode Islanders. It was the first colony to have this freedom.
Discussion Topics and Classroom Activities
4th grade and up
- Why did the Charter describe Rhode Island’s “full liberty in religious concernments” as a “lively experiment?” What did Rhode Island and the other colonies learn from the experiment?
- Why do you think the government wanted to have authority over people’s religious choices in the 1600s?
- Write a charter for your classroom, school, or another organization. What freedoms will you include? What kinds of rules will you need to ensure that your organization runs smoothly?
6th grade and up
- Roger Williams left England when he was about 30 years old, but he was still an English citizen. That meant that when he decided he wanted to create a community with a different set of rules, he still had to work with the English government to create this community. Is there a rule that you would like to change? Think about what you would have to do to change it.
- What organization, level of government or individual has authority over the rule you’d like to change?
- What process do they use to change rules?
- How will you show them that your change is a good idea?
- Who will support this change?
- Who will oppose it?
- How can you work with supporters and opponents to make your change happen?
- What kind of person would have been in favor of the Charter and why? What kind of person would have been opposed to it and why?
- What document acts as the Charter for Rhode Island today? If you wanted to change this document, how would you do it?
Websites with more information and primary sources related to Roger Williams and the Royal Charter:
Podcasts about Roger Williams and the Royal Charter commissioned by the Rhode Island 1663 Colonial Charter Commission in celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Charter:
- Episode 1: Roger Williams and an Idea Just Crazy Enough to Work [run time: 8:29]
- Episode 2: Making a New Home in Rhode Island [run time: 12:53]
- Episode 3: The Hive of Heretics [run time: 10:14]
- Episode 4: John Clarke, the Forgotten Patriot [run time: 15:14]