Portsmouth Compact visits hometown after 374-year absence


PORTSMOUTH — In her first appearance here since 1639, the Portsmouth Compact made a brief but memorable visit before more than 200 adoring fans today.

After a ceremony in the Town Council chambers, curious onlookers gathered around to take a peek at the treasured document, which established the settlement of Portsmouth 375 years ago today: March 7, 1638.

There were two rules: no touching and no flash photography.

"It's the first time anybody can remember that it's been out in the light of day," Town Council President James Seveney told the standing room-only crowd.

"This is a really special day," said James Garman, a local historian and member of the Portsmouth 375th steering committee, which hosted the event. "Probably the last time it was here was 1639 ... when it was deliberately taken."

That happened just over a year after the Compact was signed. Not long after Anne Hutchinson and her followers settled in Portsmouth in 1638, there was some controversy after William Coddington — a wealthy merchant whose signature appears first on the Compact — was named first judge magistrate. In April 1639, he and eight supporters split from Portsmouth to found Newport, writing a new compact in the process.

William Dyer, Portsmouth's first town clerk, had the records book which contained both compacts. "He closed the records book and took it" to Newport, Mr. Garman said.

The town hadn't seen the Portsmouth Compact since — until today.

"This is a fabulous opportunity for the people of Portsmouth to see a  document written 375 years ago today," Mr. Garman said. "I've been writing about history for 40 years and it's the first time I've seen it."

The ceremony was attended by many town officials and music was provided by the high school's choral ensemble and flute ensemble. The Newport Artillery was on hand to lend color to the festivities.

"It's pretty spectacular to go to your town hall and be greeted by people dressed in red, white and blue," said Anne Wagner, a resident with a passion for local history. She was also impressed by the fact that not only does the Portsmouth Compact still exist, it's legible.

Esmond D. "Doug" Smith, chairman of Portsmouth 375th steering committee, was pleased with the ceremony's big turnout. He said when people celebrate local history, the town's sense of community can overcome any political differences. He invited those in the audience to take part in as many Portsmouth 375th events as they can.

"A lot of people in Portsmouth don't know all the great things we have here," Mr. Smith said.

'Out of protective custody'

Local officials and Town Hall workers got a sneak peek of the Compact in the town clerk's office before the ceremony. Mr. Seveney said the town was grateful to the Rhode Island secretary of state's office, which manages the State Archives Division where the Compact lives. Tracey Croce, local government records analyst for the division, accompanied the Compact.

"It's always a risk to take these very old historic documents out of protective custody, so to speak," said Mr. Seveney.

Town Administrator John Klimm said it was fascinating to see the original document for himself. "It's such an important document in the town's and the state's history and it's so special to have it here," he said.

"It's nice to see something that's older than me," quipped Barbara Ripa, the town's administrative secretary, after taking a long, close look at the document.

Although the Portsmouth Compact was sent back to Providence immediately after the ceremony, you can still see it at the state archives on Westminster Street.

"It's in a climate-controlled vault. We can take it out, and it's also on microfilm," said Ms. Croce.

What the Compact says

Here’s the full text of the Compact, followed by the 23 signatures. It should be noted that three Bible citations — Exodus 24:3-4, First Chronicles 11:3 and Second Kings 11:17 — are listed in the margins.

“The 7th Day of the First Month, 1638.

We whose names are underwritten do hereby solemnly in the presence of Jehovah incorporate ourselves into a Bodie Politick and as He shall help, will submit our persons, lives and estates unto our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and to all those perfect and most absolute laws of His given in His Holy Word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby.

William Coddington

John Clarke

William Hutchinson

John Coggeshall

William Aspinwall

Samuel Wilbore

John Porter

John Sanford

Edward Hutchinson, Jr.

Thomas Savage

William Dyre

William Freeborn

Phillip Shearman

John Walker

Richard Carder

William Baulston

Edward Hutchinson, Sr.

Henry Bull X his marke

Randall Holden

Thomas Clarke

John Johnson

William Hall

John Brightman”


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