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Source: Colonial Origins of the American Constitution: A Documentary History, ed. Donald S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1998).
37 [Organization of the Government of Rhode Island]
Complete text, with the original spelling, taken from Bartlett, Vol. i, 1636 to 1663, 111–15.
March 16–19, 1642
Finding themselves sharing an island in Narragansett Bay, the towns of Portsmouth and Newport united using a document that mixed a few general principles and brief institutional descriptions with, among other miscellany, ordinances on the killing of foxes and deer. The most important result was the election of a common representative body. Another important feature, however, was religious toleration (it prohibited anyone from being held delinquent from doctrine). As a founding document this one is defective for two reasons—the colony-wide institutions are underspecified and the relationship between the colony governments and town governments is unclear. Although defective in these respects, as well as confusing in its organization and content, the document served as a kind of constitution for five years but was later replaced by the Acts and Orders of 1647 .
The Generall Court of Election began and held at Portsmouth, from the 16th of March, to the 19th of the same mo., 1641.
1. It was ordered and agreed, before the Election, that an Ingagement by oath should be taken of all the officers of this Body now to be elected, as likewise for the time to come; the ingagement which the severall officers of the State shall give is this; To the Execution of this office, I Judge myself bound before God to walk faithfully and this I profess in ye presence of God.
2. Mr. Will’m Coddington is chosen Governour for one whole yeare, or till a new be chosen.
Mr. Wm. Brenton is chosen Dep’ty Governour, for one whole yeare, or, &c.
Mr. John Coggshall is chosen Assistant for one whole yeare, or, &c.
Mr. Rob’t Harding is chosen Assistant for one whole yeare, or, &c.
Mr. Wm. Balston is chosen Assistant and Treasurer for one whole yeare, etc.
Mr. John Porter is chosen Assistant for one whole yeare, or until, &c.
Wm. Dyre is chosen Secretary for one whole yeare, or until, &c.
Mr. Rob’t Jeoffreys is chosen Treasurer for one whole yeare, or, &c.
Thomas Gorton and Henry Bull are chosen Sergeant Attendants of Portsmouth for one yeare, or till a new be chosen.
Thomas Cornell and Henry Bishop are chosen Constables of Nuport, for one yeare, or till a new be chosen.
3. It is ordered and unanimously agreed upon, that the Government which this Bodie Politick doth attend vnto in this Island, and the Jurisdiction thereof, in favour of our Prince is a democracie, or Popular Government; that is to say, It is in the Powre of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled, or the major part of them, to make or constitue Just Lawes, by which they will be regulated, and to depute from among themselves such Ministers as shall see them faithfully executed between Man and Man.
4. It was further ordered, by the authority of this present Courte, that none bee accounted a Delinquent for Doctrine: Provided, it be not directly repugnant to ye Government or Lawes established.
5. It was further ordered, that all such who shall kill a Fox shall have six shillings and eight pence, for his paines, duly paid vnto him by the Treasurer of ye Towne in which lands it was killed: Provided, that he bring the Head thereof to said Treasurer; and this order shall be of sufficient authority to the Treasurer to pay and discharge the said summ.
6. It is further ordered, that all Men who shall kill any Deare (except it be upon his own proper Land), shall bring and deliver half the said Deare into the Treasurie, or pay Forty shillings; and further it is ordered, that the Governour and Deputy Governour shall have authority to give forth a Warrant to some one deputed of each Towne to kill some against the Court times for the Countries use, who shall by his Warrant have Libertie to kill wherever he find; Provided, it be not within any man’s enclosure, and to be paid by the Treasurer: Provided, also, that no Indian shall be suffered to kill or destroy at any time or any where.
7. It is ordered from henceforth, that the Quarter Session Courts shall alway be kept the first, the first Tuesday in March; the second, the first Tuesday in June; the third, the first Tuesday in September; the last, the first Tuesday in December.
8. It is ordered, that Eight Gunns and their furniture with two corsletts, now in the hands of Mr. Willbore, shall be taken off by the Threasurie Joint-lie, as part of satisfaction for what debts from him is now dew thereto: and that the said Armes be equally divided to each Towne.
9. It is ordered, that the Deputie Governour and Mr. Willbore, and Mr. Coggshall, and Mr. Jeremy Clarke, shall be joyned in commission with the Two Treasurers that now bee, to examine the Treasurie, and to even the accounts, and then to present them so rectified to the next General Court; and what oneveness there is found to bee, the one Treasurer shall make payment to the other Treasurer within twentie dayes after the period of their commission: the limits which are set for the performance of this, shall be three weeks from the date hereof.
10. It is ordered, that Mr. Porter, Mr. Balston, Mr. Easton, and Mr. Jeoffreys shall runn the line between the two Towns within twentie dayes after the date hereof, or else shall forfeit a Mark a peece; and performing it within the (time or) tearme they shall have a Mark a peace for their Labour.
11. It is ordered, that each Towne shall provide a Towne Book, wherein they shall Record the Evidences of the Lands by them impropriated; and shall also have Powre to give forth a Coppie thereof, which shall be a clear evidence for them and theirs, to whom it is so granted.
12. It is ordered, that the Officers of Justices of the Peace is confirmed to the Magistrates.
13. It is ordered, that no Fiers shall be kindled by any whatsoever to runn at Randome, eyther in Meadows or Woods; but what by him that so kindled it shall forthwith be put out, that it damnifie none. And that if damage shall accrew, satisfaction to the utmost shall be awarded.
14. It is ordered, that a Booke shall be provided, wherein the Secretary shall write all such Lawes and Acts, as are made and constituted by the Body, to be left alway in that Towne where the said Secretary is not resident; and also that coppies of such Acts as shall be made now or hereafter, at the Generall Courts concerning necessary uses and ordinances to be observed, shall be fixed upon some public place where all men may see and take notice of them; or that coppies thereof be given to the Clerks of the Band, who shall read them at the head of the Companie.
15. It is ordered, that a Manual Seale shall be provided for the State, and that the Signett or Engraving thereof, shall be a sheafe of Arrows bound up, and in the Liess or Bond, this motto indented: Amor vincent omnia.
16. It is ordered, that Ingagement shall be taken by the Justices of the Peace in their Quarter Sessions of all men or youth above fifteen years of age, eyther by the oath of Fidelity, or some other strong cognizance.
17. It is ordered, that a Line be drawen and a way be cleared between the Townes of Nuport and Portsmouth, by removing of the wood and mowing it; that drift Cattle may sufficiently pass; and for the performance thereof, Capt. Morris, of the one Towne, and Mr. Jeoffreys of the other, are appointed to draw the Line, and to be paid therefore, and the Townes to perform the rest.
18. It is ordered, that the Traine Bands shall choose among the Freemen, one or more such as shall be for their commanders, and present them to the Towne. The Major vote of the Towne, by the Authority of this Court, shall have the negative voise for the Establishment of them, and shall order their Powre till the next Generall Courte.
19. It is ordered, that the major part of the Courts, being lawfully assembled at the place and houre appointed, shall have full Powre to transact the business that shall be Presented: Provided, it be the Major part of the Body entire, if it be the Generall Court (present) or the Major part of the Magistrates, with the Jury in the inferior Courts; and that such acts concluded and issued be of as full authority as if there were all present. Provided, there be due and seasonable notice given of every such Court.