Saturday, July 14, 2018

William Dyer's input on the Rhode Island charters


Rhode Island Charter of 1663,
Providence, Rhode Island
© 2018 Christy K. Robinson 

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The Rhode Island Charter of Liberties was granted July 15, 1663. As is still done today, 355 years later, a committee or group of community leaders spent weeks or months crafting the content and wording of the charter or constitution, and then presented the draft to a higher body for consideration and confirmation. In 1663, the monarch was King Charles II of England. The charter he granted was written by several Rhode Islanders in King Charles' voice, ratified by his Council of State, and sealed by the king.

The men most likely to have worked on drafting the charter were Dr. John Clarke (who always gets the credit!), Roger Williams, Nicholas Easton, and William Dyer, Mary Dyer's husband.

The men who wrought a bend in the time-space continuum included a theologian and sometime physician (Clarke), a Puritan-Baptist-nondenominational minister (Williams), a tanner-turned-antinomian speaker-governor (Easton), and a haberdasher-mariner-farmer-attorney (Dyer).

What historians have failed to recognize is William Dyer's significant input with the charters, mainly because they've forgotten William existed.

William Dyer was the attorney general of the colony when the 1652 charter was granted by the Council of State under Oliver Cromwell: he brought the copy home with him after his trip to England where he was appointed Commander-in-Chief-Upon-the-Sea in the Anglo Dutch War; and he had more input and authority than being a simple letter courier bringing it back from London. 

For the 1663 charter (see ), William Dyer returned to England, and he probably provided the list of two dozen Rhode Island founders, as pointed out in the end notes of the book, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. His name is last on the list, as modesty dictates, and it's spelled the way William preferred, Dyre. This is the charter that Dr. John Clarke had labored and lobbied for as Rhode Island's agent in England, for more than ten years. William Dyer and others raised the money to send Clarke to England and support his efforts during the Cromwell Protectorate of the 1650s, and the return to monarchical rule in 1660.

Further, some of the points in the 1663 charter were pet issues of William Dyer and his colleagues in the colonial assembly, namely:
  • the right to travel freely in New England (because they were colonies under royal control, not independent kingdoms -- and this royal charter nullified banishment orders by the harsh theocracy of Massachusetts Bay colonial officials); 
  • setting forth the "lively experiment" of democracy;
  • many of the Rhode Islanders were merchants and import/export traders who had business in Massachusetts ports or needed to transport goods from ports to inland destinations; 
  • with Rhode Island being such a small colony and its borders disputed by its neighbors Connecticut, Plymouth, and Massachusetts, they needed to set boundaries both physical and social; 
  • the separation of church and state functions; and 
  • they wanted religious liberty to worship -- or not -- as they behaved civilly and didn't harm others.
King Charles wasn't as religiously tolerant as we might think in granting the freedoms: he wanted to hard-tweak the noses of the ultra-Puritan and anti-Church of England governments of New England by allowing Rhode Islanders the freedom to live without oppression. He may also have dinged them for harboring some of the Puritan regicides, the participants in the execution of his father in 1649. When a Quaker, Edward Burrough, rewrote Mary Dyer's 1659 letter from the night before her first execution date, King Charles stopped the bloody New England courts from capital cases, and commanded that they refer those cases to England. William Dyer's wife's case was known to the king in late 1660 or early 1661, certainly while the 1663 charter was in negotiations.

Did the men of Rhode Island seek to exploit the king's opinion of the New England Puritan governments? Politics don't change, and timing is everything!


Christy K Robinson is author of these books:
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)