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Chafee channels Roger Williams in Inaugural Speech

January 4, 2011

Governor Lincoln Davenport Chafee today invoked the legacy of  the state’s founder and first white settler, Roger Williams, in an inaugural address in which he urged citizens to embrace our state’s diversity and use the unique lessons of  Rhode Island’s past as a guide for the future.

Standing on the South Portico of the state House on a sun-washed afternoon, Chafee pledged a substantial change of course from the 8-year reign of  Republican Don Carcieri, calling for a more tolerant view of Latino immigrants and urging lawmakers to legalize same-sex marriage.

Chafee, a former liberal Republican who became the state’s first independent governor since colonial times, spoke of unity and a spirit of shared sacrifice as Rhode Island works its way out a deep recession that has caused a state budget deficit of nearly $300 million and given the state New England’s highest unemployment rate at 11.6 percent.

“Let us begin an era of political collaboration, of cultural and ethnic acceptance, of shared sacrifice and most importantly, of faith and trust in each other,’’ said Chafee. “If we do, Rhode Island will most certainly prosper once more…the only way we can move forward is to move forward together.’’

As is the case with most inaugural speeches, Chafee’s was freighted with symbolism and dealt more in lofty themes than in governing or programmatic specifics. It was notable for its steely repudiation of much of what Carcieri stood for and even the outgoing governor’s style.

Chafee mentioned Carcieri but once, at the beginning of his address. He was polite, asking the crowd of about 500 arrayed around the capitol to “join me in thanking Governor Carcieri for his service to Rhode Island.’’ That was the last mention of Carcieri in an address that called for reversing such Carcieri initiatives as the E-Verify executive order used to vet the citizenship status of state employees and vendors and Carcieri’s staunch opposition to gay marriage.

“I would hope that Rhode Island will catch up to her New England neighbors and pass a bill to establish marriage equality,’’ said Chafee. “I urge our General Assembly to quickly consider and adopt this legislation. When marriage equality is the law in Rhode Island, we honor our forefathers who risked their lives and fortune in pursuit of human equality.’’

It was a speech that harkened back to New England live-and-let live traditions; it could have been given by a liberal Democrat such as John or Edward Kennedy or a liberal Republican like George Aiken or Margaret Chase Smith. And it was limned by the Yankee Protestant legacies of Chafee’s forefathers; one could hear strains of the hymn `Faith of Our Fathers’ throughout the address, in which the new governor avoided the Latin-ate and stuck to unadorned Anglo-Saxon phrases.

Chafee, a 57-year old Brown University graduate with deep roots in Rhode Island, assumes the office his father, the late John H. Chafee, a moderate Republican, held for 6 years in the 1960s. Lincoln Chafee, known universally as “Linc” is a former U.S. senator and Warwick mayor who lost a Senate race in 2006 to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. A father of three children who is married to Stephanie Danforth Chafee, a nurse, Chafee takes over a much different Rhode Island than the state his father governed.

In the 1960s, Rhode Island had a growing economy, with the textile, jewelry and electronic manufacturing industries still employing many citizens. The state was home to large U.S. Navy installations in Newport, then  home to the Atlantic destroyer fleet, and at the Quonset  Naval Station in North Kingstown. And it was an era of expanding federal spending from Washington, where John F. Kennedy, the last New Englander elected president, held sway in the White House.

Chafee bowed to the national debate over the American and Rhode Island past by repeatedly referring to Roger Williams. In an era when political figures of every persuasion –from the tri-corned hats of the Tea Party to the Twittering class liberals of  Moveon.org — battle vigorously over who best represents American traditions, Chafee was very clear about where he stands.

Williams is the thread, Chafee said, that weaves the Rhode Island past with his vision of the future. He mentioned Williams seven times by name and made reference to him at several more points. “Today I ask all Rhode Islanders to join me in boldly reaffirming Roger Williams vision of a civil state…a vibrant diverse community that is free of political, cultural and ethnic division. For if we rekindle the vision that created our heritage, there is nothing this state and her people cannot achieve.’’

Every Rhode Island school child recognizes Roger Williams as the father of our state. But few citizens understand the significance of Williams as a political philosopher or his place in the history of the way our country deals with religion and the polity.

Many outside our state wonder why there is a Rhode Island; how this watery sliver of New England, a place one can drive across in 45 minutes without breaking the scarcely obeyed speed limits ever became a state?

The grand historical accident that is Rhode Island happened because Williams couldn’t get along with the 17th century Puritan theocrats who ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Williams, a Protestant preacher, was banished from Massachusetts for heresy. He and his band of religious renegades settled in 1636 at the head of Narragansett Bay in a place he called Providence.

Williams was that very rare evangelist who let his flock interpret God for themselves.

“Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God,’’ said Williams. “No man should be molested for his conscience.’’

Williams colony became a magnet for dissenters of all stripes and evolved into a place that tolerated just about anything and everybody – Quakers, Jews, Antinomians, Ranters, agnostics and other refugees flocked to Rhode Island.

Williams is important in the history of government because he established the doctrine of the separation of church and state for the first time in the history of the Western world. He worried that any majority _ including (and especially) religious majorities, would fail to respect the views of the minority. So he set up a colony with complete freedom of conscience. There was a strong barrier  between church and state. There were no religious tests for holding political office. His  genius was to figure out that if the state supported, or established, no religion, but tolerated all, then no faith would be placed above another in the eyes of the law.

Thus, Williams said, people with no religious views, or false religious views, can live together peacefully so long as they respect each other’s rights. It was this belief that led Williams to have good relations with native Americans, which Chafee also noted in his speech.

In Rhode Island’s first Constitution, Williams insisted on this provision: “It shall not be lawful for the rest of the colonies to invade or molest the native Indians.’’

To show how far ahead of his time was Williams, one only has to look at the fact that in 1658, 15 Jewish families arrived in Newport. They were given the same religious liberty granted others, which is remarkable considering that Jews in England did not gain full civil rights until two centuries later in 1858. Williams views came more than a century before the Scottish Enlightenment or the writings of such English constitutional theorists as John Locke, which are generally credited with influencing American constitutional development and the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom.

“Rhode Island was the most liberal, the most entrepreneurial and most modern,’’ of the American colonies, wrote Gordon Wood, the Brown University historian and student of early America.

When Carcieri referenced Williams, it was only to note the entrepreneurial side of Williams theories and how they led to the unfettered capitalism that made Rhode Island an early sea trading center. Chafee’s view of  Williams is in the way those theories contributed to a commonweal and a we’re-all-in-this-together society.

“Our independence is written into every page of Rhode Island history,” said Chafee. “When Roger Williams came to these beautiful shores in 1636, he instantly made this the most democratic place in America, simply by welcoming other dissenters, and by creating a new form of government that valued tolerance and consensus over orthodoxy and compulsion.”

There was little in Chafee’s speech for conservatives, particularly social-issue conservatives, religious conservatives and the anti-government crowd.  And Chafee, who thumbed his nose at conventional political wisdom in his campaign by advocating a tax increase, didn’t back away at all from that stance. “A civil state means responsibility flows in both directions. As citizens Rhode Islanders deserve honest reliable government – but as users of services taxpayers must give government the resources to do its job.’’

On education, Chafee hinted at his skepticism of the charter school movement, saying that “while we all want improvement in education we must not dismiss what has worked as we strive for progress.’’

An inaugural speech merely sets a political figure’s compass. It does not lay out a plan or program for digging a state out of its malaise. For that, we will have to wait for a few weeks when Chafee gives his state-of-the state speech and his budget message detailing Rhode Island’s taxing and government spending plans.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Mitchell permalink
    January 4, 2011 10:37 pm

    Scott your attempt to put lipstick on that pig doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig.
    Chafee’s reading of words on a page were uninspiring and flat.
    Linc is a tool of special interests who’s hired nothing but well connected white folk.
    He is as divisive an individual as we have in politcs here in RI.
    Your wiping of his bum doesn’t change that.

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