PROVIDENCE, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE by Samuel G. Arnold 1876

Samuel G. Arnold

Samuel G. Arnold

PROVIDENCE, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE, Oration By The Honorable Samuel G. Arnold (1821-1880) Delivered At Providence, Rhode Island, July 4, 1876

To trace the causes that led to the American Revolution, to narrate the events of the struggle for independence, or to consider the effect which the establishment of “the great Republic” has had upon the fortunes of the race in other lands— these have been the usual and appropriate themes for discourse upon each return of our national anniversary. And where can we find more exalted or more exalting subjects for reflection? It is not the deed of a day, the events of a year, the changes of a century, that explain the condition of a nation. Else we might date from the 4th of July, 1776, the rise of the American people, and so far as we as a nation are concerned, we might disregard all prior history as completely as we do the years beyond the flood. But this we cannot do, for the primitive Briton, the resistless Roman, the invading Dane, the usurping Saxon, the conquering Norman, have all left their separate and distinguishable stamp upon the England of to-day. As from Caedmon to Chaucer, from Spenser to Shakespeare, from Milton to Macaulay, we trace the progress of our language and literature from the unintelligible Saxon to the English of our time; so the development of political ideas has its great eras, chiefly written in blood. From the fall of Boadicea to the landing of Hengist, from the death of Harold to the triumph at Runnymede, from the wars of the Roses to the rise of the Reformation, from the fields of Edgehill and Worcester, through the restoration and expulsion of the Stuarts down to the days of George III, we may trace the steady advance of those nations of society and of government which culminated in the act of an American Congress a century ago proclaiming us a united and independent people. When the barons of John assembled on that little islet in the Thames to wrest from their reluctant kins the right of Magna Charta, there were the same spirit, and the same purpose that prevailed nearly six centuries after in the Congress at Philadelphia, and the actors were the same in blood and lineage. The charging cry at Dunbar, “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” rang out a hundred and twenty-five years later from another Puritan camp on Bunker Hill. So history repeats itself in the ever-recurring conflict of ideas, with the difference of time, and place and people, and with this further difference in the result, that while in ancient times the principal characters in the historic drama were the conqueror, the conquered and the victim, these in modem days become the oppressor, the oppressed and the deliverer. Charles Stuart falls beneath Cromwell and Ireton, George III yields to Washington and Greene, serfdom and slavery vanish before Romanoff and Lincoln.

But we must turn from this wide field of history to one of narrower limits, to one so small that it seems insignificant to that class of minds which measures States only by the acre, as cloth by the yard; to those men who, to be consistent, should consider Daniel Lambert a greater man than Napoleon Bonaparte, or the continent of Africa a richer possession than Athens in the days of Pericles. There are many just such men, and the materialistic tendency of our times is adding to their number. It is in vain to remind them that from one of the smallest States of antiquity arose the philosophy and the art that rule the world to-day, Judea should have been an empire and Bethlehem a Babylon to impress such minds with the grandeur of Hebrew poetry or the sublimity of Christian faith. But for those to whom ideas are more than acres, men greater than machinery, and moral worth a mightier influence than material wealth, there is a lesson to be learned from the subject to which the Act of Congress and the Resolutions of the General Assembly limit this discourse. And since what is homely and familiar sometimes receives a higher appreciation from being recognized abroad, hear what the historian of America has said of our little Commonwealth, that “had the territory of the State corresponded to the importance and singularity of the principles of its early existence, the world would have been filled with wonder at the phenomena of its history.

Roger Williams Statue

Roger Williams Statue

Hear too a less familiar voice from beyond the sea, a German writer of the philosophy of history. Reciting the principles of Roger Williams, their successful establishment in Rhode Island, and their subsequent triumph, he says: “They have given laws to one quarter of the globe, and dreaded for their moral influence, they stand in the background of every democratic struggle in Europe.” It is of our ancestors, people of Providence, that these words were written, and of them and their descendants that I am called to speak.

To condense two hundred and forty years of history within an hour is simply impossible. We can only touch upon a few salient points, and illustrate the progress of Providence by a very few striking statistics. Passing over the disputed causes which led to the banishment of Roger Williams from Massachusetts, we come to the undisputed fact that there existed, at that time, a close alliance between the church and the State in the colony whence he fled, and that he severed that union at once and forever in the city which he founded. Poets had dreamed and philosophers had fancied a state of society where men were free and thought was untrammeled. Sir Thomas More and Sir Philip Sydney had written of such things. Utopias and Arcadias had their place in literature, but nowhere on the broad earth had these ideas assumed a practical form till the father of Providence, the founder of Rhode Island, transferred them from the field of fiction to the domain of fact, and changed them from an improbable fancy to a positive law. It was a transformation in politics—the science of applied philosophy—more complete than that by which Bacon overthrew the system of Aristotle. It was a revolution, the greatest that in the latter days had yet been seen. From out this modern Nazareth, whence no good thing could come, arose a light to enlighten the world. The “Great Apostle of Religious Freedom” here first truly interpreted to those who sat in darkness the teachings of his mighty Master. The independence of the mind had had its assertors, the freedom of the soul here found its champion. We begin then at the settlement of this city, with an idea that was novel and startling, even amid the philosophical speculations of the seventeenth century, a great original idea, which was to compass a continent, “give laws to one quarter of the globe,” and after the lapse of two centuries to become the universal property of the western world by being accepted in its completeness by that neighboring State, to whose persecutions Rhode Island owed its origin. Roger Williams was the incarnation of the idea of soul liberty, the Town of Providence became its organization. This is history enough if there were naught else to relate. Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick soon followed with their antinomian settlers to carry out the same principle of the underived independence of the soul, the accountability of man to his Maker, alone in all religious concerns. After the union of the four original towns into one colony, under the Parliamentary patent of 1643, confirmed and continued by the Royal charter of 1663, the history of the town becomes so included in that of the colony, in all matters of general interest, that it is difficult to divide them. The several towns, occupied chiefly with their own narrow interests, present little to attract in their local administration, but spoke mainly through their representatives in the colonial assembly, upon all subjects of general importance. It is there that we must look for most of the facts that-make history, the progress of society, the will of the people expressed in action. To these records we must often refer in sketching the growth of Providence.

Roger Williams and Narragansett Indians

Roger Williams and Narragansett Indians

It was in June, 1636, that Roger Williams, with five companions crossed the Seekonk to Slate Rock, where he was welcomed by the friendly Indians, and pursuing his way around the headland of Tockwotton, sailed up the Moshassuck, then a broad stream, skirted by a dense forest on either shore.

Attracted by a natural spring on the eastern bank he landed near what is now the cove, and began the settlement which in gratitude, to his Supreme Deliverer he called Providence. He had already purchased a large tract of land from the natives which was at first divided with twelve others “and such as the major part of us shall admit into the same fellowship of vote with us,” thus constituting thirteen original proprietors of Providence. (4). The first division of land was made in 1638, in which fifty-four names appear as the owners of “home lots” extending from Main to Hope streets, besides which each person had a six acre lot assigned him in other parts of the purchase. The granters could not sell their land to any but an inhabitant without consent of the town, and a penalty was imposed upon those who did not improve their lands. The government established by these primitive settlers was an anomaly in history. It was a pure democracy, which, for the first time guarded jealously the rights of conscience. The inhabitants, “masters of families” incorporated themselves into a town and made an order that no man should be molested for his conscience. The people met monthly in town meeting and chose a clerk and treasurer at each meeting. The earliest written compact that has been preserved is without date but probably was adopted in 1637. It is signed by thirteen persons (5.) We have not time to draw a picture of these primitive meetings held beneath the shade of some spreading tree where the fathers of Providence, discussed and decided the most delicate and difficult problems of practical politics, and reconciled the requirements of life with principles then unknown in popular legislation. The records are lost and here and there only a fragment has been preserved by unfriendly hands to give a hint of those often stormy assemblies where there were no precedents to guide, and only untried principles to be established by the dictates of common sense. Of these the case of “Verm, reported by Winthrop, is well known wherein liberty of conscience and the rights of woman were both involved with a most delicate question of family discipline. It is curious enough that one form of the subject now known under the general name of women’s rights, destined more than two centuries later to become a theme of popular agitation, should here be foreshadowed so early in Rhode Island, the source of so many novel ideas and the starting point of so many important movement*

Roger Williams was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom, he started the Baptist church in America.

Roger Williams was an English Protestant theologian who was an early proponent of religious freedom, he started the Baptist church in America.

Religious services had no doubt been held from the earliest settlement, but the first organized church was formed in 1638, the first Baptist church in America.

From the earliest days of the colony to the close of the recent civil strife, the war record of the State has been a brilliant one. As early as 1655, in the Dutch war she did more than the New England Confederacy, from which she had been basely excluded. Her exposed condition, by reason of the Indians, fostered this feeling in the first instance, and long habit cultivated the martial spirit of the people till it became a second nature. Her maritime advantages favored commercial enterprise, and the two combined prepared her for those naval exploits which in after years shed so much glory on the State. The three Indian wars, the three wars with Holland (1652-8, 1667, 1672-4), and the two with France (1667, 1690), in the seventeenth century, the three Spanish(1702-13, 1739-48, 1762-3), and the three French wars (1702-13, 1744-8, 1754-63) of the eighteenth, had trained the American colonies to conflict, and prepared them for the greater struggle about to come. At the outbreak of the fourth inter-colonial war, known as the “old French war,” this colony with less than forty thousand inhabitants and eighty-three hundred fighting men, sent fifteen hundred of these upon various naval expeditions, besides a regiment of eleven companies of infantry, seven hundred and fifty men under Col. Christopher Harris, who marched to the siege of Crown Point. Thus more than one-quarter of the effective force of the colony was at one time, on sea and laud, in privateers, in the royal fleets and in the camp, learning that stern lesson which was soon to redeem a continent. Is it surprising then that when the ordeal came the conduct of Rhode Island was prompt and decisive? It is said that small States are always plucky ones, and Rhode Island confirmed the historic truth.

The passage of the stamp act (Feb. 27, 1765), roused the spirit of resistance through America to fever heat. But amid all the acts of Assemblies, and the resolutions of town meetings, none went so far or spoke so boldly the intentions of the people as those passed in Providence at a special town meeting (August 7,1765), and adopted unanimously by the General Assembly (Sept 16). They pointed directly to an absolution of allegiance to the British crown, unless the grievances were removed. The day before the fatal one on which the act was to take effect, the Governors of all the Colonies, but one, took the oath to sustain it. Samuel Ward, “the Governor of Rhode Island stood alone in his patriotic refusal,” says Bancroft. Nor was it the last as it was not the first time that Rhode Island stood alone in the van of progress. Non-importation arguments were everywhere made. The repeal of the odious act (Feb. 22, 1766) came too late, coupled as it was with a declaratory act asserting the right of Parliament “to bind the Colonies in all cases.” Then came a new development of patriotic fervor instituted by the women of Providence. Eighteen young ladies of leading families of the town met at the house of Dr. Ephraim Bowen (March 4, 1766), and from sunrise till night, employed the time in spinning flax. These “Daughters of Liberty,” as they were called, resolved to use no more British goods, and to be consistent they omitted tea from the evening meal. So rapid was the growth of the association that their next meeting was held at the Court House. The “Sons of Liberty” were associations formed at this time in all the Colonies to resist oppression, but to Providence belongs the exclusive honor of this union of her daughters for the same exalted purpose. This is the second time we have had occasion to notice that women has come conspicuously to the front in the annals of Providence, when great principles were at stake. But we claim nothing more for our women than the same spirit of self-denial and lofty devotion that the sex has everywhere shown in the great crises of history. The first at the cross and the first at the sepulcher, the spirit and the blessing of the Son of God have ever rested in the heart of woman.

Side by side with the struggle for freedom grew the effort for a wider system of education. It was proposed to establish four free public schools. This was voted down by the poorer class of people who would be most benefited by the movement. Still the measure was partially carried out, and a two story brick building was erected in (1768). The upper story was occupied by a private school, the lower, as a free school. Whipple Hall, which afterwards became the first district school, was at this time chartered as a private school in the north part of the town, and all the schools were placed in charge of a committee of nine, of whom the Town Council formed a part the next year a great stimulus was given to the educational movement in the town. Two years had passed since Rhode Island College was established at Warren, and the first class oi seven students was about to graduate. Commencement day gave rise to the earliest legal holiday in our history. A rivalry among the chief towns of the Colony for the permanent location of what is now Brown University, resulted in its removal two years later (1774) to Providence. This now venerable institution, whose foundation was a protest against sectarianism in education, has become the honored head of a system of public and private schools, which for completeness of design, for perfection of detail, and for thoroughness of work, may safely challenge comparison with any other organized educational system in the world.

There are some significant facts connected with The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which serve to show the relative importance of this city in the industrial summary of the country. One is that in the three principal buildings Providence occupies the centre and most conspicuous place. We all know the man who commands Presidents and Emperors, and they obey him—who says to Don Pedro “come,” and he cometh, and to President Grant “Do this,” and he doeth it, and we have seen the mighty engine that from the centre of Machinery Hall, moves fourteen acres of the world’s most cunning industry. The Corliss engine proudly sustains the supremacy of Providence amid the marvels of both hemispheres. Facing the central area of the main exhibition building, the Gorham Manufacturing Company have their splendid show of silver ware around the most superb specimens of the craftsman’s art that has ever adorned any Exposition in modern times. Under the central dome of Agricultural Hall the Rumford Chemical Works present an elaborate and attractive display of their varied and important products, arresting the eye as a prominent object among the exhibits of all the world. And when we visit the Women’s Pavilion we shall see that of all the rich embroidery there displayed none surpasses that shown by the Providence Employment Society, and shall learn that little Rhode Island ranks as the fifth State in the amount of its contributions to the funds of this department, being surpassed only by New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Massachusetts. A city which occupies these positions in the greatest Exposition of the century has no cause to shun comparison between its past and its present.

But by far the greatest event of its bearing upon the prosperity of Providence was the introduction of water which, after being four times defeated by popular vote, was finally adopted in 1869. The work commenced the next year, and the water was first introduced from the Pawtuxet river in November, 1871. The question, whether Providence was to become a metropolis of trade and manufactures or to continue as a secondary city, was thus settled in favor of progress. The stimulus given in the right direction was immediate and immense. The overflow of population soon required the city limits to be extended, and the annexation of the Ninth and Tenth Wards caused an increase of forty-six per cent, from the census of 1870 to that of 1875, a showing which no other city in the country can equal.

That the city of Providence has its future in its own hands is apparent. With the vast wealth and accumulated industries of a century at its disposal; with the result which this latest measures of improvement has produced as an encouragement; and with the experience of other less favored seaports as a guide, there would seem to be the ability and the inducement to take the one remaining step necessary to secure the supremacy which nature indicates for the head waters of Narragansett bay. While our northern and western railroad connections are already very large and are rapidly reaching their requisite extension there remains only the improvement of the harbor and adjacent waters of the bay, which can be made at comparatively small expense, to make Providence the commercial emporium of New England. There is no mere fancy in this idea. It is an absolute fact, attested by the history of Glasgow, and foreshadowed by the opinions of those who have thought long and carefully upon the subject. It is a simple question of engineering and of enterprise, and it will be accomplished. When Providence had twelve thousand inhabitants, as it had within the life time of many of us who do not yet count ourselves as old, had some seer foretold that the centennial of the nation would see the quiet town transformed into the growing city starting upon its second hundred thousand of population, it would have seemed a far more startling statement than this with which we now close the Centennial Address—that the child is already born who will see more than half a million of people within our city, which will then be the commercial metropolis of New England.

See also: The Consequence of Bad Legal Precedent in American Legislation
Wide Spread And Growing Corruption In The Public Service Of The States And Nation
Founders & forefathers pledged their Sacred Honor, what did they mean?
THE POWER OF HISTORY by Horatio Seymour (1810–1886)
WHAT HISTORY TEACHES US ABOUT AMERICAN DIPLOMACY Addressed in 1876
THE COST OF POPULAR LIBERTY by Brooks Adams July 4th 1876
THE TRIUMPHS OF THE REPUBLIC! by Hon. Theodore Bacon, New York 1876
AMERICA OUR SUCCESS OUR FUTURE! by John P. Gulliver July 4th 1876 NYC
THE SOURCE AND SECURITY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM AND PROGRESS by Courtlandt Parker 1876
BENEFITS OF THE REPUBLICAN EXPERIMENT IN AMERICA by Thomas G. Alvord 1810- 1897
NEW HAVEN CT, ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO by Leonard Bacon July 4, 1876
Celtic Prayer of the Lorica or Breastplate prayer
Founders on the 2nd Amendment
The Story of Paul Revere

One thought on “PROVIDENCE, PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE by Samuel G. Arnold 1876

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