Thursday, August 1, 2013

William Coddington: Rhode Island’s Governor for life

© 2013 Jo Ann Butler, used by permission

This painting is said to be Coddington,
but from the clothing style,
it is probably his grandson,
William Coddington.

Rhode Island once had a governor for life, but few people apart from historians remember that peculiar incident. William Coddington was elected to govern Rhode Island nearly every year between 1638 and 1648. In 1649 he was elected again, but refused to serve. Why was that, and who was William Coddington?

Born in 1601 in Boston, Lincolnshire, William Coddington was a member of the Winthrop party which founded Boston, Massachusetts in 1630. Even before the company embarked, he was chosen as Governor John Winthrop’s assistant, a position the affluent Coddington held through 1637.

In that year, Coddington was part of a group which coalesced around Anne Hutchinson in a religious and political dispute. Out of favor with Winthrop’s Puritans, they were ordered to surrender their arms, and then questioned by the court. A few of Hutchinson’s supporters were banished, and over 140 men packed up their families and left Massachusetts. 

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations

Most of them relocated to Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay, which would eventually be renamed Rhode Island. Note: at this time, Rhode Island was not the name of the entire colony, but refers to the island formerly known as Aquidneck. Providence Plantations was a separate entity comprising Providence and Warwick.

William Coddington was more gently handled by the Puritans than others of Hutchinson’s party. Governor Winthrop asked him to reconsider his error and to stay in Boston. Coddington chose to leave. Even before leaving Boston, he and eighteen other men signed a compact to bind themselves into “a Body Politicke.” Coddington was elected to lead the new community of Pocasset, now Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

As Judge, William Coddington had two votes in deciding colonial affairs, and perhaps that was typical of his leadership. Other Portsmouth residents apparently took offense, and the controversial Samuell Gorton helped stir resentment. In 1639, Coddington was voted out of office, and Anne’s husband William Hutchinson was set in his place.

Once more, Coddington and his supporters, including William and Mary Dyer, left town. They settled on the south end of the island and called their new colony Newport. Naturally, Coddington led Newport. Portsmouth and Newport soon settled their differences and Coddington led both towns until 1647. In that year, Newport and Portsmouth united with Providence and Warwick under a single government. William Coddington was elected President of the four towns for the next two years.  

DID YOU KNOW: William Dyer sued William Coddington several times over two decades. The Coddington and Dyer farms neighbored each other and shared road access. Dyer sued Coddington several times over trespassing, killing Dyer's mare, and “uttering words of contumacy” – which is a “stubborn refusal to obey authority or, particularly in law, the willful contempt of the order or summons of a court.” The court cases were continued or dropped, until the RI Assembly decided to forgive Coddington and destroy the records that held negative references to him.

In 1644, Roger Williams obtained a charter from King Charles I. The charter defined Rhode Island’s boundaries and protected the colonists’ lands from seizure by the Puritan Massachusetts or Plymouth. Rhode Island’s four towns were united and Coddington ruled them, but he could foresee a day when one of his rivals might be elected to govern him.

Coddington’s next actions may be explained by deep enmity with Samuell Gorton of Warwick, and perhaps rivalry with Roger Williams of Providence. In May 1648 Coddington was again elected President, but refused to serve. Rhode Island’s records state that there “are divers bills of complaint exhibited against Mr. Coddington,” but unfortunately they do not name those charges.

Still in disfavor, Coddington sailed to England in January 1649. There he obtained a new wife, and a commission making him Rhode Island’s governor – and annulling Roger Williams’ 1644 charter. There was no provision in the commission for elections, so it appeared that Coddington was now governor for life.

It seems that Coddington wasn’t entirely honest with Parliament in asking for exclusive control of Rhode Island. He told them that about thirteen years past, he had discovered two small islands, called “Aquetnet, alias Rhode Island, and Quinunagate” (Conanicut, now Jamestown), lying within Narragansett Bay, which he purchased of the Indians, and had quietly enjoyed ever since. Now, desiring to govern by English laws, he prayed for a grant of those islands from Parliament. Coddington conveniently forgot to mention that there were approximately 100 men living on Rhode Island who were allowed to vote, and perhaps a like number of non-voters, plus their families.

William Coddington returned with the document in July 1651 and set up his new government. Rhode Island was infuriated to learn that Coddington was given “full power and authority … to cause equal and indifferent justice to be duly administered to all the good people … according to the law established in this land,” to issue legal papers, “raise forces for defence … and use all lawful means to setle, improve and preserve the said Islands in peace and safety.” Coddington would choose a council of six men from Newport and Portsmouth as assistants, but those towns could not select their own representatives. Coddington now had complete power over Rhode Island. He was also allowed to choose who could settle in Rhode Island, vote, buy or be granted land, and what laws would be enacted.

John Clarke signature

  By the end of 1651, most of Rhode Island’s residents had persuaded Dr. John Clarke, Roger Williams, and William Dyer to sail to England. There they would get Parliament to revoke Coddington’s commission and affirm the 1644 charter. This was done with unusual speed, and Coddington’s commission was annulled in October 1652.

Even before Coddington’s commission was overturned, that man had been forced to flee Rhode Island. An armed uprising against Coddington’s henchman put him in fear of “the tumultuous crew (and) their malicious thirsting after blood.” Coddington fled Newport – taking Rhode Island’s records with him into exile in Boston.

Coddington refused to lay down his commission for another four years before submitting to “the authority of his Highness in this colony as it is now united, and that with all my heart.” He returned Rhode Island’s town records and deeds. As a goodwill gesture, records critical of Coddington and his supporters (including lawsuits by William Dyer, the attorney general) were cut from the interim records and destroyed – a tragedy for historians who would love to know what happened in those years.

Coddington tombstone

 Though Roger Williams called Coddington more concerned with private profit and power than general welfare, eventually William Coddington was reconciled with Rhode Island’s citizens. He was even picked to govern the colony between 1674 and 1676 and in 1678, the year of his death. Was it William Coddington who mellowed with age, or was it Rhode Island which mellowed? By the 1670s the Quakers were stepping back from their dramatic civil disobedience, Rhode Island embraced them, and so did Coddington. Whatever the reason, Coddington must have been grateful for redemption at the end of his controversial life. 

Jo Ann Butler is a naturalist, archaeologist, genealogist, and author of two historical novels set in Rhode Island during the lives of William and Mary Dyer: Rebel Puritan, and The Reputed Wife. Visit her website to learn more or to purchase the books, available in print and e-book.


  1. Nice, interesting post, Jo Ann! A couple of things I would add. First, Coddington always thought of himself as part of the natural aristocracy. So he was good about governing others, but not one to be governed. Second, when the deed for Aquidneck was drawn up with the natives, the grant was made over to Coddington and friends, with only Coddington named. Thus later, before the English Council of State, Coddington could be dismissive of those others who had shared in the purchase of Aquidneck.

  2. He is my great great…… something grandfather

    1. He is mine as well...through Abigail Coddington who married William Verrh. I guess we are cousins.


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