Portsmouth Compact unified town’s early settlers


PORTSMOUTH — It doesn’t look like much: a nearly indecipherable scrawl of just 76 words, followed by 23 signatures.

Like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, however, the document’s brevity is one of its strengths.

What’s undeniable about the Portsmouth Compact is that it established the settlement of this town 375 years ago this week — March 7, 1638, to be precise. What’s debatable, however, is the paper’s significance. Among the lofty claims for the Compact was that it was the first document to sever both political and religious ties with mother England, and the first to establish a democratic form of government (hence those “birthplace of democracy” claims made for Portsmouth).

For local historian James Garman, however, the Compact served a much simpler purpose for the early settlers of Portsmouth.

"These guys decided to ban together to sign an agreement to unite for their own protection,” he said of William Coddington, John Clarke and others who were being banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of their dissident views toward its Puritan leaders. “They were banding together — not as an independence move — but to take care of each other. They don't make any mention of protection of a crown, or a king."

(Mr. Garman spoke about the Compact when the document visited Town Hall Thursday, and again that night at the Portsmouth Free Library. Since the free tickets to the library presentation went so quickly, another speech has been set for Wednesday, March 13. That lecture has also "sold out.")

Mr. Garman said Anne Hutchinson was probably the catalyst behind the dispute with the Massachusetts Bay Colony ministers, which revolved around the antinomian conflict of whether a “saved” person is saved initially, or whether they're saved through their good works.

“Anne Hutchinson and a number of her followers were gathering at her house — first woman and then men — and discussing the idea, 'Were the Puritan ministers right?'" he said. "It became increasingly critical and eventually the word got out; it was a small community."

Soon the dissidents were banished from the colony. "Their weapons were taken away and they were given deadlines on when they had to get out,” said Mr. Garman.

By the time the dissidents met to sign the Compact on March 7, 1638 — probably at William Coddington’s home in Boston — Hutchinson was in jail awaiting her second trial after having already been convicted of criticizing the ministers.

Compact’s meaning

Based on all the religious references in the Compact and his own research, Mr. Garman believes the writer of the document was probably The Rev. Dr. John Clarke, who signed it after Coddington. (In 1663 — 350 years ago — Clarke would secure a charter from King Charles II that guaranteed religious liberty for the Rhode Island colony. "That's really important because that charter became the constitution of Rhode Island and remained so until 1843,” said Mr. Garman.)

The Compact, which also bears the signatures of Anne Hutchinson's husband Will and her son and brother-in-law, states that the group is incorporating itself into a “Bodie Politick.”

"As best as I can determine on its definition, it was a self-sustaining kind of thing. It's the same phrase that they used when they signed the Mayflower Compact of 1620,” said Mr. Garman. “It says, 'We'll work together.’ I’ve always downplayed (the Compact’s significance) a little bit, because the language is so similar to the Mayflower Compact. But for our local history, it's very important."

The Compact could be considered unique by the mere fact that it exists at all.

"As far as I can tell, there isn't one for Providence, which was the first settlement in the state. This is the second settlement,” said Mr. Garman.

John Parrillo, adjunct professor of history at Roger Williams University in Bristol, agreed.

“In Portsmouth, they’re really the first ones we know who really put things in writing,” he said, noting that the early town settlers were constantly re-examining their ideas about government and putting pen to paper, first in 1638 and then later on. “What’s amazing about it is they're experimenting with all types of government."

He also sees hints of the First Amendment in these early writings. While there were laws against dissent in Massachusetts, there are no such edicts found in Portsmouth, he said. "You could say stuff and nobody's going to bitch about it,” said Mr. Parrillo.

Soon after the Compact was penned, many of the signers — but not all, interestingly enough — came to what is now Portsmouth and with Roger Williams’ help negotiated a purchase of Aquidneck Island from the Narragansett Indian tribe.

“They wanted to get far enough away so they weren't threatened by Mass Bay,” said Mr. Garman, noting that Tiverton and Little Compton were part of Massachusetts at the time. "That's part of the reason Anne Hutchinson migrated further westward, because she was too close to Massachusetts. To a certain extant they lived in fear."

Hutchinson: founder or follower?

Although she didn’t sign the Compact — her sex probably would have precluded her from doing so anyway — Hutchinson is still considered by many to be the founder of Portsmouth. You can find that claim on many websites when Googling information on the town. While there’s no doubt she was a key figure in the fight for religious freedom in the 17th century, her role in Portsmouth’s founding is still a source of much contention.

“I get in trouble for this, but Anne Hutchinson didn't found Portsmouth; a bunch of people did,” said Mr. Garman. “A lot of people came to Portsmouth because she did and continued to follow her for those three, four years when she was here. She’s as important as Coddington and Clarke. But again, nobody set up a church here. Nobody created any kind of a ministry as such."

Hutchinson was also preoccupied with other matters, he said. “She was a midwife who had 17 children of her own and obviously a little distracted by some of these things."

Mr. Parrillo agreed that “you can really get in trouble for what you say” about Hutchinson.

"If I were to say Anne Hutchinson did everything, I'd have 15 people screaming at me, ‘She didn't do a freakin' thing!’” Mr. Parrillo said. “But I personally think Anne Hutchinson was behind everything. She was really an anarchist; she didn't believe in government for herself. She was a major figure."

The following year, in 1639, Coddington left Portsmouth along with eight others and founded Newport. They took the action partly because of conflicts with the “Hutchinsonians,” according to Mr. Garman, but primarily for economic reasons: Newport had a much better port for the larger ships.

After her husband died in 1642, Anne Hutchinson left Portsmouth with her children in early 1643 to settle in an area which is now the Bronx in New York. Later that summer, she and all but one of the 16 members of her household were killed in an attack by a Native American Siwanoy tribe.

Town doesn't own Compact

The Portsmouth Compact lives on, however, even though it's not in the town's possession. Since the physical document is in a volume that also contains early town records from Newport, it's stored at the Rhode Island state archives under the secretary of state's office. Town Administrator John Klimm and Town Clerk Kathleen Viera Beaudoin negotiated with the state to allow for this week's public display in Portsmouth.

“I’m struck literally by the age of the document — if you just think about how old, how historic it is," said Mr. Klimm, who hasn't given up hope that the Compact may one day return to its hometown for good.

"One never knows," he said.


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