Roger Williams: Did this Gentle Man Plant a Seed for the American Revolution?

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island. No one knows how Roger Williams original looked like, so the sculptor used another, more recent, Williams as a model.

Statue of Roger Williams at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.
Yes, that’s Ted Williams’ face.

Hear me out:  The concept of the separation of church and state is so deeply embedded in the American psyche that it was a catalyst that led not only to independence, but to American democracy itself.

Jefferson hardly invented the “wall of separation” phrase that’s in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.  He very appropriately repeated a phrase that was first uttered by Roger Williams in the 1640s.

Unable to come to an accommodation with the intolerant Puritans in Massachusetts (actually he fled from them), Williams obtained a charter from England with the intention to build a colony with a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes (sic) of the world.”

Rhode Island was born.

Let’s think about that. Jefferson well knew who first uttered that phrase one hundred and sixty or so years before, as probably did the congregants of Danbury Baptist.

The concept of a separation of church and state was well known in 1802.  And well it should have been. It took some time for Williams’ seed of religious liberty to sprout outside of Rhode Island, but when it did…


That seed sprouted into the First Great Awakening.

The First Great Awakening was a religious movement that burned through the American colonies in the first half of the 18th century. At its core, it was a popular reaction against the theocracies that established authoritarian states in several New England colonies.   The common people insisted that they reserve the right to choose for themselves how they worshipped.  They won that contest against the theocrats, and won pretty handily at that.  In so doing, they built a resilient wall of separation between church and state.

No more theocracy:  The power of religion lay with the people and not the state.

From thereon in, the people of New England were psychologically prepared to rebel against unabridged authority, be it religious or political.

It was no coincidence that where the First Great Awakening initially caught fire, where the people rebelled against theocracy so they could worship in their own way, was also the land where British troops were first fired upon.

Hence Roger Williams, possibly the gentlest settler who walked the early American colonies, in his example of religious tolerance and protection for individual religious belief, greatly contributed to the defiant mindset (“Don’t tread on me”)  that eventually led to the American Revolution.

Certainly his principle of a “hedge or wall of Separation”designed to protect individual religious belief lives on today 370 years later. This wall is much older than Thomas Jefferson.

Today’s extremists, ignorant of this grand history, will continue to try to knock down this powerful wall that is so deeply embedded in the American character. In the long run, they’re not going to get very far with their muddleheaded quest.

Like those long ago New England colonists who battled for religious freedom, today’s Americans won’t let anyone take that freedom away from them.

Yes, these radical muddleheads will create chaos and pain in the attempt at weakening or destroying this wall.

But succeed?

I don’t think so.

A fine series on Roger Williams and his powerful but largely forgotten impact on today’s world is available on YouTube via the Center for Liberty of Conscience here:


The Difference

Yes another draft with some semantic, grammar and stylistic flaws I’ll address!

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the French challenge between “personal freedom and government oversight”. I prefer stating it as a balance between negative liberty and positive liberty, where negative liberty is viewed as a lack of constraints and positive liberty as the requirements society must facilitate towards self-realization.

This isn’t to say that the descriptor “negative” in liberty translates to this freedom being “bad”. It isn’t. It’s a necessity in the overall constellation of liberties. However, negative freedom, taken to an extreme, infringes on other, positive freedoms.

Strong proponents of negative liberty, (think libertarians, especially) almost always either disagree that there is such a definition of positive freedom, or at best, strive to make positive liberty subservient to negative liberty. They have a fear of positive liberty taken to an extreme, which they define as a paternalistic state that infringes on their negative liberties. They fear, and are fueled by the teachings of Hegal, Von Mises, and others, that a state empowered to guard negative liberties can turn into tyranny, citing the totalitarian states of the 20th century as examples of states supporting positive liberties gone awry.

Proponents of positive liberty-the concept of which which, by nature, is a much more complex subject, cite the absolute requirement that our society strive to facilitate its citizens towards self-realization, and to do so, work to ensure that its citizens have access to the core requirements of life so as to enable that quest. These requirements translate to health care for all, unemployment assistance as a compensation for society not making jobs available, and a whole plethora of enablers, ranging from a living wage standard to ensuring quality educational opportunities are available to all classes, regardless of income. This is where concepts such as solidarity become essential.

It used to be, say from about 1940 to about 1980, that both sides of the American political aisle paid heed to both positive and negative liberties, the difference being one of emphasis. Think of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”:

1. Freedom of speech (a negative liberty- a lack of constraint on free expression)
2. Freedom of worship (another negative liberty – a lack of constraint on religious expression or lack thereof)
3. Freedom from want (absolutely a positive liberty – health care, enough to eat, a living wage, etc.)
4. Freedom from fear (a positive liberty where the state is responsible for maintaining safety at many levels, including a responsibility by the state itself to not impose fear on its own citizens)

There is nothing there that Eisenhower or Nixon, for example would disagree with. For that matter, as the two most recent popes, for example, stated respectively that universal health care is an “inalienable right”, as are such concepts as a living wage and freedom from hunger, that there is a recognition across the spectrum that positive liberties are essential to true freedom.

But something has changed in America, and really only in the USA, and changed very radically in the last thirty years, accelerating to the radical Right of today, especially as exemplified by the growth of libertarianism and such “Know Nothing” movements as the Tea Party. Such movements are dead set against the establishment of positive liberties with an emotionalism that challenges the very name of “Objectivism” that many of these folks espouse.

In a way, this is no surprise. The political party that most closely espouses the goals of for-profit enterprises promotes negative liberty (lack of constraints), often at the expense of positive liberty, as positive liberties are forced at times to impose constraints to protect other, more precious freedoms. Think of environmental regulations. They impose constraints on corporate “negative liberties” so as to make sure that we have clean water, clean air, and clean food to eat.

These corporations have little to no interest in positive freedom. In fact, generally speaking, they view positive freedoms as getting in the way of their profits. Hence they promote a “negative liberty” worldview that fits nicely with libertarianism. The result? A political party that dispenses with positive liberties.

This dichotomy, I believe, is the very definition of the debate between the American Left and Right today. The Right has fallen into a self-defeating paradigm of recognizing negative liberties only as true liberty, and *can’t* break out of this paradigm because it is so deeply in thrall to forces that reject notions of positive liberty.

The Left has a much more balanced view – that, yes, of course negative liberty is important, but so is positive liberty, and a society that does not safeguard positive liberty in and of itself becomes one of tyranny.

My point is that those proponents of a negative liberty-only world view, in their mad race to break free of every societal constraint possible, are in and of themselves trampling on our ancient, positive freedoms.

And because they trample on those ancient freedoms, they become tyrants themselves, no matter how loudly they shout “Liberty and Freedom!”