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did not destroy or annul their respective governments at home. Such an act would have been suicidal, for their own authority as delegates was derived from these governments. They were not chosen for such a purpose, nor were they subsequently empowered to effect it. They were appointed to consult with the delegates from the other colonies for the common welfare, and if need were, to throw off a foreign yoke ; but not to cancel the safeguards of their domestic liberties, and the fundamental laws of the bodies politic whom they represented.
Under these charters, also, Rhode Island and Connecticut became parties to the Confederation of 1778. They entered into this league, not as mere aggregations of individuals, bound together by no tie but the interests of the moment ; but as sovereign States, legally constituted, formally governed, and acting by their appointed representatives. Under the same charters, also, the legislatures of these States called conventions of the people, who accepted the Federal Constitution of 1787, and thus became members of our present union. A new law was thus ratified in the same manner as the charters had been, by conventions legally called and empowered to represent the whole people. This new law, in a certain sense, acted over the old governments of the several States, without displacing or destroying them. When Rhode Island signified her adherence to the Constitution in 1790, she received from the other parties to that instrument the guaranty of “a republican form of government,” and an assurance of protection “ against invasion and against domestic violence.” Of course, those other parties, by admitting this State into the union, recognized her form of polity and her civil administration, as then established, as "a republican government.” Otherwise, they were bound by this guaranty instantly to fit out troops, or adopt other measures, to create or restore the republicanism of that government.
Under the charters thus ratified and confirmed, not only by the people of Rhode Island and Connecticut, but by the authorities of the whole union, these two States continued to exist and to be governed for a long period. Connecticut retained her charter till 1818, when some changes being required by the voice of the people, legal measures were taken in due form, under the authority of the legislature, and in conformity to the practice in other States, to form a new constitution, which was accepted and ratified by the people, and went peaceably into effect. Rhode Island retained hers till 1843, when, in the same manner, she formed and adopted a new constitution, which is now in operation. It is to the history of the contest which preceded this alteration in her form of government, that we are now to direct our attention.
But before we attempt to give a brief sketch of these occurrences, it is necessary to consider what was the law and the practice upon that point under the old government, on which the whole controversy turned ; we mean the right of suffrage.* When Roger Williams and his associates formed a settlement at Providence, in 1636, they incorporated themselves into a “town fellowship.” The earliest records of their proceedings, which are now extant, contain the following entry, under the date of August 20th, 1637.
“ We, whose names are here under, desirous to inhabit the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active and passive obedience to all such orders and agreements as shall be made for public good of the body in an orderly way, by the major consent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town fellowship, and others whom they shall admit unto them, only in civil things.”
The last clause, “ only in civil things,” marks the steadfast attachment of Roger Williams and his associates to the principles of religious liberty and the freedom of conscience. William Coddington and his company formed another settlement on the island of Rhode Island in 1637 – 8, and agreed to the following compact.
“We, whose names are underwritten, do swear solemnly, in the presence of Jehovah, to incorporate ourselves into a body politic, and, as He shall help us, will submit our persons, our lives, and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and to all those most perfect and absolute laws of His, given us in his holy word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.”
* We are indebted for many of the facts which follow, relating to the early history of Rhode Island, to an excellent memorial, respecting the suf. frage question, addressed to the General Assembly early in 1842, and soon afterwards published in a pamphlet of twenty-four pages. It has no signature, but was written, we believe, by Judge Pitman, and bears for title only the following inscription : “ To the Members of the General Assembly of Rhode Island.” We are also under considerable obligation for bistorical facts to an admirable pamphlet on the same subject, the title of which is placed at the head of this article, written by Mr. Elisha R. Potter, now a member of the House of Representatives of the United States.
This company declared, in 1641 – 2, that their government was “a democracie, or popular government,” and that the power to make laws, and depute ministers to execute them, was “in the body of freemen, orderly assembled, or a major part of them.” They admitted to the elective franchise from time to time such other persons as came to join them, and “upon orderly presentation were found meet for the service of the body, and no just exception against them.” None but those regularly admitted were allowed to take part in the affairs of government, although it appears, from the separate lists kept of the freemen and the inhabitants, that many of the latter were not admitted. The two settlements, at' Providence and on the island, were united into one, in 1643, under the first charter ; and in 1647, they admitted into their company a third settlement, which had been formed at Warwick five years before. Thus it appears, that there were originally three distinct settlements in this State, entirely independent of each other. The charter obtained in 1663 required, that the General Assembly should be composed of the Governor, Deputy Governor, the Assistants, and " such of the freemen of the said Company as shall be so as aforesaid elected or deputed ; " and it authorized the Assembly “to choose, nominate, and appoint such and so many other persons as they shall think fit, and shall be willing to accept the same, to be free of the said company and body politic, and them into the same to admit.”
It seems, therefore, that the charter confined the right of suffrage to the “ freemen" of the Company, as was formerly the case in Massachusetts ; but the power rested entirely with the General Assembly to determine what qualifications should be required of a freeman. In other words, any person might be admitted free of the Company by those who were freemen, or voters, already. In 1665, the General Assembly, in pursuance of the authority thus granted to them, declared, “ that all men of competent estates,” and possessing " sufficient testimony of their fitness and qualifcations as shall by the General Assembly be deemed satistactory," should be admitted as freemen, and that no others should enjoy the like privilege. There was no need of requiring the ownership of real estate as a qualification, for, at that period, nearly all the permanent inhabitants of the Colony were freeholders. By an act passed in February, 1723 -4, the voter was required to possess real estate valued at £ 100, or that would rent for forty shillings per annum, or to be the eldest son of such a voter. In 1729, a law was passed, requiring that the freehold qualification should be of the value of £200, or £ 10 annual rent. Sixteen years afterwards, freemen were required to have freeholds of the value of £ 400, or £ 20 annual rent," being their own real estate, or to be the eldest son of such a freeholder."
In August, 1760, the value of the estate was required to be at least £40, lawful money, or forty shillings rent. In 1798, it was established at $ 134, or seven dollars a year ; and at this rate it remained till the adoption of the new constitution, in 1843.
“All these seeming inconsistencies,” says Mr. Potter, “ are easily explained by recurring to the history of the emission of paper money made by the Colonies. The qualifications of 1723 – 4, 1729 – 30, and 1746, are in old tenor, so called, the value of which was constantly depreciating. The qualification of 1760 is in lawful money, and, in 1798, was merely changed into dollars, at six shillings to a dollar.”
The limitation of the right of suffrage to freeholders and the eldest sons of freeholders was but one of the grievances which produced the recent contest in Rhode Island. Another cause of complaint was the inequality of representation in the lower House of Assembly. The charter determined the number of representatives of the several towns by an arbitrary rule, without reference to future increase of population, or change of circumstances. The apportionment was probably correct in principle when it was adopted ; but being continued without change for one hundred and seventy years, it became very unequal. Newport, which was the chief town in 1660, had four representatives ; Providence, then a place of small importance, had but two ; Warwick and Portsmouth had four each, and every other town two. But in 1824, the population of Providence was more than double that of Newport. Several towns which were entitled to only two representatives each, had twice as many inhabitants as Portsmouth, which sent four. The county of Providence, which included ten towns out of the thirty-one in the State, and had three fifths of the entire popula
. tion, sent twenty-two representatives, while the other counties sent fifty. The upper House of Assembly, consisting of the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, and ten Senators, was chosen annually by “general ticket,” and therefore equally represented the opinions of the majority of the voters.
The history of the several attempts to redress these grievances by a change in the fundamental laws of the State may be divided, for convenience, into three periods. The first extends from the adoption of the Federal Constitution by Rhode Island, in 1790, to the year 1824. The second, beginning in 1924, comes down to the publication of what was usually called the “Landholders' Constitution," in February, 1842. The third period embraces the events which occurred subsequently to the date last mentioned, and ends with the establishment of the new government in May, 1843.
During the first period, the people appeared satisfied with the existing form of government and the established laws, and no anxiety was expressed for a change. A motion was made in the House of Representatives, in 1799, to call a convention for the purpose of framing a constitution, one delegate to be allowed to every thousand inhabitants in a
The motion prevailed by a small majority, but the bill was probably lost in the Senate, as we hear nothing of the project afterwards. In 1811, when there was an active political contest in the State, and the Democratic and Federal parties successively obtained the control of the government during the same year, a bill was prepared for the extension of suffrage, and it passed the Senate ; but it was defeated in the other House, or was never presented there, and the scheme was not revived. In 1819, and the three following years, Mr. Dorr affirms, that the subject of a new constitution was again agitated, with a view to removing the inequalities of suffrage and representation ; but we find no evidence of the fact, and the movement, therefore, could not have been a general one.
During this period of more than thirty years, the people appeared to be well contented with their existing institutions. They were even strongly attached to the charter and the laws, that were now hallowed by so many old associations ; under which their ancestors had enjoyed the largest liberty, while nominally subject to a foreign monarch ; which had