- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003


Take any road into this pastoral coastal town, and one is greeted with a heady proclamation: “Portsmouth: The Birthplace of American Democracy.” The claim springs from the town’s founders, a hearty band of pious Pilgrims who were banished from the rigid First Church of Boston and settled by a mosquito-infested brook in 1638.

They united themselves in a short, simple treatise that ordained the group as an organized political body, with individual rights.

Some historians say the document, called the Portsmouth Compact, established the first democratic form of government. They note the founders formed a civil government, with regular public meetings where laws were passed and majority vote ruled. The settlers established a judiciary, with an elected judge and a jury of 12 men. They collected money by sales of land and spent it for town business.

“Show me one city or town in America that can make that claim,” John Pierce Sr., a local historian, said with a light, mischievous laugh. “Prove we’re wrong.”

Boston claims to be the birthplace of revolution and freedom, noting its pivotal role in the American Revolution. Philadelphia says it’s the birthplace of America, noting the Constitution was written and ratified there. But neither boasts the genesis of democracy.

Some historians note that unlike other early Colonial towns in New England, such as Plymouth, Mass., or New Haven, Conn., Portsmouth’s founders wanted no affiliation with the British crown or with any church.

The compact “was the free act of the sovereign people themselves, exercising the rights, natural and inalienable, to life, liberty and happiness,” wrote scholar Thomas Bicknell in 1915.

Town leaders have seized upon the claim in the decades since. They erected a bronze plaque at the site where the refugees first camped. On it is what the original 19 signers wrote:

“We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.”

Constitutional-law experts say those words show the mission was religious to the core.

“One wonders where Jews and Quakers or perhaps even Lutherans or Calvinists would fit under this paragraph,” said Roger Plion, the founder and director of the Cato Center for Constitutional Studies, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He also teaches constitutional theory at Georgetown University.

J. Stanley Lemons, a longtime professor of the state’s history at Rhode Island College, said the compact was nothing more than a typical civil agreement by exiles at the time, much like what would be drawn up by a club today.

Mr. Lemons believes Portsmouth, like other towns, states and even the United States itself, has capitalized on the murkiness of centuries-old events to bend history in its favor.

“It’s just another case of local boosterism,” he said. “It’s not grounded in fact.”

There’s no dispute that the founding of the town on the northern tip of Aquidneck Island was unique. Leading the way was Anne Hutchinson, a firebrand of a woman “with a voluble tongue more bold than that of a man,” according to one church elder at the time. In meetings at her home, Hutchinson preached that faith leads to salvation, and eschewed the Boston clergy’s insistence on prayer and other acts to attain redemption.

Tensions climaxed between the church and the breakaway group known as the antinomians, meaning “against the law.” The rebels created their compact in Boston on March 7, 1638. They purchased land from two local Indian leaders and moved to Portsmouth shortly thereafter.

There, these well-to-do families attempted to make their compact a reality, and there’s little question they ventured far beyond its guidelines.

A militia was formed, the first in Rhode Island. A meeting house was built, where the townsfolk passed laws. A prison was constructed and a marshal appointed to run it. An inn and a tavern were built. Two treasurers were elected. Land was parceled out.

The settlement didn’t last long, however. Nine months later, William Coddington, under whose name the land was deeded, left to found a colony at the southern end of Aquidneck Island. He and nine others called it Newport.

Much of the debate over the democratic claim comes from the group’s formation under the stewardship of God. The compact never calls for a separation of church and state, some scholars note.

Scholar Sydney James noted the same in his 2000 book, “The Colonial Metamorphoses in Rhode Island.” But he wrote the settlers abandoned religious structures when they elected an administrator.

“Amazingly, the Portsmouth settlers, initially united by a religious cause, quickly lost their ability to agree on religious matters, and they simply dropped religious organization from their public concerns,” Mr. James wrote.

Mr. Plion acknowledges the settlers may have created an infant democracy. But “that’s an accident of history, not something required by this document,” he says.

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