What Roger Williams Understood About Our Rights on the "Ship" That Is America

Every society is something of a balancing act: There's a permanent tension, and a push and pull, between the rights of the individual and the power of the government. But some folks will look at that wobbling progress and assume that eventually, the whole thing has to tip over -- possibly into anarchy.

Maybe not, says Rule Breaker Investing host David Gardner. This episode is another in his "Great Quotes" series, and in this segment, he's offering up thoughts from one of 17th-century New England's great minds: Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island. He was also an abolitionist two centuries before the Civil War, an early proponent of the idea of the separation of church and state, and a philosopher on how the rights of individuals stand in contrast to the powers of government. In this extended quote, he likens a diverse nation to a great ship at sea, and the conclusions he draws from the analogy still resonate today.

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This video was recorded on June 12, 2019.

David Gardner: Great Quote No. 4: This one is hundreds of years old. But part of the reason I love this sentiment, and also the person who came up with it, is this was a man who was thinking well ahead of his time. Some of you may remember Roger Williams. Roger Williams did found the colony of Rhode Island, history will show. He'd been booted out by the Pilgrims in Plymouth. He'd had to leave Massachusetts and start his own separatist area. He started Rhode Island. This is a guy who was born in Great Britain, in England. He knew some of the great minds of his time. For example, he knew Francis Bacon back in England. He studied under Sir Edward Coke, the great English jurist, or the British father of law. He tutored John Milton, in Dutch -- he also tutored John Milton, if you can believe this, in some of the American Indian languages of the time.

But what makes Williams such an interesting figure for us today is that he had two primary areas of thought where he innovated. One was the separation of church and state. Centuries ago, both in America (Puritan America) and in England, there wasn't that separation. And he felt very strongly that we needed to keep those things separate, and that has profoundly influenced America ever since, although it remains a debate we still have in some ways today.

His second big area of focus was a separation of the individual's rights versus the state's rights. What are you allowed to do? For example, Sir Edward Coke, whom he studied under, said an Englishman's home is his castle -- that concept that your property that you live on, you can do what you want on your property. Not everybody felt that way back then. Some of these key themes that keep coming back, even in modern-day politics today in America: the separation of church and state, and the separation of an individual's rights versus what the state can ask of him or her. These are very au courant, but Williams was ahead of his time.

In fact, before I get to the quote, I'll mention he was one of the first abolitionists. He got Rhode Island with its own law against slavery in the mid-1600s, even though later, Rhode Island would ignore that law -- slave trading and slave ownership certainly happened in Rhode Island. In fact, Brown University was started by a family that was indulging in slave trading. But Roger Williams set things up at the beginning so that there was a law against slavery: one of the first abolitionists. Also, a man who had to survive on his own in harsh winters when he was expelled from Massachusetts, so he got to know the American Indians around him at the time, and became the first one to write up a book about the Narragansett Indians and their language. This is a really interesting person.

Why do I know so much about Roger Williams? Because John M. Barry wrote an outstanding book a few years ago called Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul. I had the pleasure of meeting John Barry at my book club; he came and appeared after our club read the book. So I learned more about Roger Williams. If Roger Williams was just a footnote that you remembered from fifth grade, when you studied the Pilgrims, and found out about how Rhode Island started -- or, I know I have some Rhode Island listeners, Brian Feroldi, you all probably know the founding father of your state better than I do. He was a remarkable man.

This is the quote that I've queued up to share. It's different from the others. We're going a different direction here with Great Quote No. 4. He's talking about freedom that you and I have, and he calls it -- the term they were using back then is "the liberty of conscience." Do you have the liberty to do and say and think what you want to? From the book Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, I quote: "He said he had always 'disclaimed and abhorred' any interpretation of his views which suggested that liberty of conscience led to anarchy. To explain himself, Williams used an analogy."

Here comes the great quote. There's a little bit of storytelling here, so settle in:

I can't lay out the full context for that, but I hope you enjoyed a little bit of the language that they were rocking back in the 1600s. What you saw there is Williams describing a ship where we're all from different places. And none of us should be compelled, in this case, to have to observe or worship the same as anybody else.

This was such a radical notion. To think that Williams himself started Rhode Island, and in many ways, was the first American. In fact, Barry's book ends -- spoiler alert here, these are just the last couple of lines of this book -- "Decades earlier, he had told his countryman John Winthrop, 'I have not yet turned Indian'" -- because there were concerns about how much time he was spending with the Indians. But the author goes on to say he still had not at the end of his life, but neither was he any more English; he was an American.

So, in a lot of ways, that sentiment that Williams had and possessed, and in some ways died for, dedicated his life to -- it's really at the heart of the founding of our country. It's about what are your rights versus mine, and it's a conversation that'll continue. But if you didn't already know Roger Williams, or you could appreciate that quote: Just think about that big ship that we're all on together as we go out to sea, and what are our responsibilities, and what are not. I think it's really helpful and instructive here in the year 2019.

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