Lessons from the Past
Every so often the news will feature a story about some historic article that has just unexpectedly surfaced. In the dark recesses and crannies of ancient government buildings all sorts of strange and valuable materials may be lurking unnoticed.
One such example is the discovery last year of the original charter for the city of Providence, Rhode Island. The lambskin document, handwritten on both sides, is equivalent to the city’s birth certificate. The discovery was made by city archivist, Paul R. Campbell. A student of Rhode Island history, he spends much of his time digging around in the attic of the City Hall, looking for secrets from the past.
Campbell found an open box in a fifth floor storage area near his office that contained miscellaneous records from the 1960s. Among these records in a folder labeled "to be indexed" was a very old document. He said, "I recognized right away the writing style of the 17th century . . . it began to look like something more important than a deed." Indeed, it was.
The document dated to Governor Roger Williams' return from England in 1643 where he had obtained a charter for the Colony of Rhode Island from the king. Upon his return, he applied to the Colonial Legislature for a town charter for the Town of Providence. The document found is that charter issued in March 1648.
The small parchment measures about 4 by 12 inches, a size easily squirreled away among other old papers. A red smudge indicates where a wax seal was once applied years ago, likely when the charter was created. Now age and aridity have curled the sides making it even smaller.
Evidently the charter was last seen in 1843, when a local judge wrote a history, "The Annals of Providence." At that time he apparently had access to the document that grants "to the free inhabitants of this colony of Providence" the right to govern themselves. Now on the 375th anniversary of the founding of the town it was rediscovered.
Ranger John J. McNiff of the Roger Williams National Memorial portrays Williams at the national park and is regarded as an authority on Roger Williams. When told of the find, he remarked, "It may not be like finding another copy of the Declaration of Independence, but for Rhode Island history, it’s absolutely important." He hopes this find will inspire others to rummage around in their attics.
City officials are currently discussing how best to preserve and display the document, at present stored in an acid-free cardboard box. They are hoping to be able to flatten it out and perhaps encapsulate it in some sort of a protective cover.
Providence’s history of bad political leadership has led to many derogatory comments about the absence of the charter and its effect on local governing authorities. One wag declared they’d better hurry and burn it before the public sees the clause stating, "Thou shalt NOT go into debt!" The "Providence Journal" quoted another who said, "If they downsized the government back to the original charter, they would be amazed how much money they would save!"
Perhaps we should all rummage around in our attics—who knows what treasures might await discovery and what lessons might be learned if we adhered to admonitions from the past.
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25 November 2012