Historians of the law of colonial America long have appreciated that each colony must be examined individually. For example, George Lee Haskins wrote in the Preface to his classic book Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts (1960) that “it is essential that the character and growth of the several colonial legal systems be studied individually and be separately described,” and Richard B. Morris opined in the Foreword to George Athan Billias’s groundbreaking collection Law & Authority in Colonial America (1965) that “no monolithic interpretation will suffice to explain the course and reception of the law in America — whether we are dealing with seventeenth-century seaboard colonies as disparate as Puritan Massachusetts and the plantation colonies of Maryland and Virginia, or the later western territories.”
The instant article — the first in a series of case studies on law and the animating principles of each of the original British American colonies — explores the relationship between the animating principle of colonial Rhode Island and the colony’s laws. A perusal of the compacts of Rhode Island’s original four towns, of the Patent for Providence Plantations of 1643/4, and of the Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations of 1663 leaves no doubt about the colony’s foundational commitment to religious liberty. However, an investigation of the legal history of colonial Rhode Island reveals a number of inconsistencies in the implementation of that animating principle, especially with respect to the law’s treatment of Catholics, Jews, and Quakers. The article concludes by reconciling those inconsistencies through a famous parable authored by Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams.