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Keeping Providence Plantations
Dr. Clifford W. Brown, Jr.

Aside from Trivial Pursuit players and Jeopardy fans, few people beyond our borders know that the official name of our state is "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." Objection has been raised recently that the word "Plantations" evokes memories of slavery, and should therefore be dropped from the state's name. The voters will be asked to decide this issue by referendum on the November ballot.

Roger Williams was the author of the name "Providence Plantations," and the Executive Committee of the Roger Williams Family Association wish to go on record against this proposed change -- with all due respect to those who advocate it -- because we believe that the word "plantation," as used by Roger Williams, had nothing to do with slavery.

Unlike many other colonies of that era, Providence Plantations (subsequently united with "Rhode Island" into a single colony) was not organized or founded as a money-making enterprise. To the contrary, the original colonists in Providence were religious dissenters fleeing religious persecution in Europe and especially nearby Massachusetts. And, unlike many others fleeing religious persecution, they did not turn around and persecute others -- but demanded that religious persecution be explicitly forbidden in the founding documents of the colony.

Williams believed that this colony had been planted under the guidance and authority of Divine Providence as a small haven for those who wished to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences -- and he explicitly upheld the right of Protestant, Catholic, Jew, and "Turk" to worship unmolested within the boundaries of Providence Plantations as long as they obeyed the legitimate authorities in civil matters.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word plantation had several meanings in Williams' time which can be grouped as follows: a) literally a planting of crops or an assemblage of plants, b) a founding of something, often a religion, c) a settlement of persons, especially a colony, and therefore a collection of colonists.

This word must have seemed especially fitting to Williams, since it described what the colonists were doing as they planted and harvested their own small crops, as they planted on these shores a novel and tolerant approach to religion, and as they constituted a new colony, a planting of peoples -- the first of many such plantings of peoples, as it turned out, from different cultures and with different religious beliefs, who could live peacefully together on this soil, consistent with Williams' important vision of human freedom of conscience, divinely blessed.

The call for renaming our state is based on a mistaken assumption: the OED's earliest cited usage of the word "plantation" meaning a highly-organized agricultural economic unit typically using slave or servile labor is from 1706, well after the naming of Providence Plantations. We are not unmindful of this current usage, nor of Rhode Island's association with slavery and the slave trade, but we do think it is correct to conclude that the odious connotation of "plantation" currently complained of did not exist in 1636 when Williams named the colony.

If the meaning was not odious then, but to some has become so since, should this not be sufficient reason to change the name of the state? Were this merely an unimportant set of words with obsolete relevance, we might be persuaded. But "Providence Plantations" contains in its original meaning and historical context a powerful and positive message of religious toleration and human freedom that remains tremendously important today.

If there is confusion over what our state's name means and symbolizes, then let us clear up the confusion, not eliminate the name. Let us proudly proclaim to the world what it meant to Roger Williams, assert that this is still its meaning in our state today, and reaffirm by words and deeds our personal and collective commitment to the vision of religious freedom and human decency that Roger Williams hoped would always exist in "Providence Plantations."

 


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