Heralding the 1663 Royal Charter for the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations as “one of the great human rights documents of the world,” Gov. Lincoln Chafee set the stage Tuesday for the celebration next year of the 350th anniversary of King Charles II’s grant to John Clarke and Roger Williams.
A history buff who frequently references Roger Williams, the state’s founder, and the charter in his speeches and Statehouse presentations, Chafee appointed a 34-member commission to organize a celebration for the sesquarcentennial, which will culminate on July 8, 2013.
Standing in front of the tall metal vault that holds the charter, located outside the door to the Senate Chamber, Chafee told a small gathering, “Too many of us walk down the corridors of the Statehouse every day without realizing we are in the presence of one of the great documents of American history.”
Until 1663, the governor said, “religious liberty was an aspiration, rather than a fact, except here in Rhode Island, where Roger Williams and his fellow settlers had woven it into the fabric of our daily life.”
“Before any other Colony, in fact, more than a century before the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” Chafee said the charter “marked the first time in modern history that individuals within a society were free to practice the religion of their choice without the interference of government.”
He noted that debates over the separation of church and state are ongoing today, pointing to the dispute over the Cranston West high school prayer banner and his own contretemps with the “holiday tree” in the Statehouse Rotunda.
Chafee and Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, whose office is charged with preserving Rhode Island’s historical archives, also unveiled the seal of the 350th anniversary celebration, designed by Portsmouth graphic artist Thomas Roskelly, an anchor with the dates 1663 and 2013 on either side inside a circle.
Chafee noted that the 1663 charter served as the state’s governing document well past the American Revolution into the mid-1 800s, when a new constitution was ratified in 1843. A provision of the charter granting “plenary power” to the General Assembly remained in force until voters approved the separation of powers amendment to the RI Constitution in the 1990s.
“Rhode Island has never stopped being a lively experiment,” Chafee said, borrowing a famous phrase of the charter that is carved above one of the doorways of the Statehouse, “now it is time for a lively celebration.”
Mollis called the charter “our most precious document,” and noted is a staple of Statehouse tours taken by hundreds of visitors and schoolchildren every year.
He said the charter originally carried the wax and resin Great Seal of King Charles II, but that has deteriorated and been damaged over time. Remnants of the original seal are kept at the state archives, along with a cast of the king’s seal.
Mollis said steps will be taken to preserve the charter “so it will still be here 350 years from now.”
Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts said the commission “brings together so many exciting thinkers, philosophers and communicators. I can’t think of a more interesting time in our state to be talking about some of the founding principles in this document – the question of religious liberty, the separation of religious practice from government, not only in our state but in our country.”
The commission will be chaired by Edward Sanderson, executive director of the state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, said the charter “reflects the founding and the very meaning of Rhode Island.”
In 1663, Sanderson said, “the idea of liberty was considered dangerous, and Rhode Island was considered an outlier in the New World and the Old World for its adherence to these principles.”
On hand for the announcement was Matthew Campion, Vice Consul for the British Consulate General in Boston.
“The links between Rhode Island and the United Kingdom are today are exemplified by the royal charter, crafted at a time when British settlers were looking for better-defined boundaries, clarity and purpose in the law and a new form of freedom.”
Mollis’s office is also launching a new website for the 350th anniversary www.sos.ri.gov/library/history/charter/  , which features a downloadable image of the charter and the full text translated into modern American English. There is also a web video on the “RhodeIslandGovernor” YouTube channel.