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Talking Points Memo on Rhode Island Name Change

Turns out Josh Marshall of the high-profile lefty political blog Talking Points Memo used to be a historian-in-training at Brown University, specializing in 17th Century southern New England - who knew? So he's got a particularly well-informed take on the ballot question that would change Rhode Island's official name. Here's an excerpt - Marshall points out an interesting irony starting with the third paragraph below:

There's a proposition on the ballot this year to change the name of Rhode Island from "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" to simply "Rhode Island." The idea is that the appendage "Providence Plantations" is redolent of slavery and should go. I can't get too crazy up in arms about it. But it'll be an unfortunate change and I'll be sorry to see it go. And in this case, I actually have a decent amount of formal expertise on this topic... 

...The first and probably the most important point is that the "plantations" in Providence Plantations has nothing to do with slavery. That's a meaning of the word that only became current maybe a century or more after Roger Williams named his little colony in the early-mid 17th century. In the 17th century a 'plantation' was what we'd now call a 'colony' or a 'settlement'. The 'plant' in plantation wasn't (or at least wasn't primarily) a cash crop you were growing but the people you were inserting onto the landscape...

...Rhode Island started as two colonies. One was Providence Plantations, the settlement Roger Williams established in modern Providence along with a couple other small towns in what is now Northern Rhode Island. (If you have nothing better to do with your time you can read a journal article I published back in 1995 about one of these towns -- Warwick -- and the relations between settlers and Indians in the middle of the 17th century. Read the full version here in this anthology.) The other was Rhode Island, the folks living on Aquidneck Island, the main Island in Narragansett Bay.

The folks in 'Providence Plantations' were among the first principled opponents of slavery anywhere in the Americas, certainly in New England and by most measures everywhere in North America. Folks like Roger Williams, Samuel Gorton and a bunch of other guys who died more than three centuries ago whose letters and records I spent way too much time reading in my 20s. It's a fascinating legacy. The roots of slavery in Rhode Island, both as an internal institution and as a key force in the slave trade, came from the other original colony, Rhode Island and settlements in southern Rhode Island that were tied to it.

Because of my own background, I have a certain antiquarian interest in this old name. But it seems unambiguously true to me that purging "Providence Plantations" from the state's name, in addition to being a strike against the state's history, would have the perverse effect of silencing the legacy of the people who were anti-slavery long, long before many people in the Western World even recognized it as a moral question.

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