WSJ, NYT look at ‘exasperatingly admirable’ Roger WilliamsDecember 30th, 2011 at 7:52 pm by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Roger Williams – the founding father of Rhode Island whose name is often invoked by Governor Chafee, most recently to defend “holiday trees” – gets quite a bit of ink in this weekend’s editions of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
Both papers reviewed John Barry’s new book, “Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty,” which drops Thursday. From the sounds of it, Williams was more of a radical than modern Rhode Islanders may realize.
Joyce Chaplin, The Times’ reviewer, is only lukewarm about the book itself, but she’s a big fan of its subject:
A “hedge or wall of Separation” between church and state was affirmed by the Constitution; rights for Indians were not. Williams would have considered it a battle half-won. He did not think an “American soul” needed to be created — such souls already existed within Indians. By largely confining Williams’s story to the establishment of liberties for America’s adopted populations, without equal attention to the defense of its indigenous inhabitants, Barry has perhaps underestimated his remarkable subject.
Some of Chaplin’s descriptions of Williams actually sound a bit like how Chafee’s supporters view the governor. She writes of “how puzzling a character [Williams] was, exasperatingly admirable,” and that, while generally well-liked, he nevertheless “seemed determined to offend.”
In The Journal, Raymond Zhong nicely contrasts Williams’ views with those of Massachusetts’ John Winthrop, and he says Barry’s book ”establishes Williams as a brave thinker and also a deft political actor – not a rare type in early American history but one we usually associate with the American Revolution, not the Puritan colonies.”
For Chafee and other Williams fans, though, Zhong’s review ends on a melancholy note:
Why, then, does Williams languish in history’s margins? The Rhode Island attitude toward religion did not catch fire right away, Mr. Barry notes. When Williams died in 1683, he was mourned in Rhode Island but not in the rest of New England. Jefferson and Madison got their liberalism mostly through Locke and the Enlightenment, though historians consider Williams to have influenced Locke’s work to some degree.
There is another reason why Williams’s place in the public imagination is small. Despite his forward-thinking ideas, his conception of the state was still by no means a modern, secular one. He assumed that public life required a religious core. For better or worse, neither Williams nor Winthrop would recognize his vision of a New Jerusalem in the United States today.