Explaining the Six Big Ideas of Rhode Island History
“State History” as a field of historical inquiry has had its ups and downs. As long ago as two centuries, even before ‘history’ was a separate study at colleges and universities, learned professionals, like lawyers, physicians, and clergy argued the merits of the ‘exceptional’ attributes of the various states of the American union. In Rhode Island, one of the motivations for creating a Rhode Island Historical Society was the feeling among community leaders that Rhode Island suffered from invidious comparisons with neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. They concluded some scholarly body needed to stand up to the ‘slanders’ made by Massachusetts concerning the state’s origins. Hence, prominent Rhode Islanders formed its historical society, which met quarterly, originally at the Old State House in Providence where they read learned papers to each other, published essays, and saw about the rescue of scattered documents pertaining to the past. It was they who asserted the first two ‘Big Ideas’ of Rhode Island history. Lieutenant Governor, Samuel Greene Arnold, posited that Rhode Island stood alone in first promoting the concept of ‘Soul Liberty’ (the separation of church and state) and in recognizing the humanity of its Native residents. While many authorities since would question the sincerity and the consistency of the Ocean State’s record on these matters, nonetheless it was the beginning of many attempts to define the Rhode Island way of doing things and its contribution to the American nation.
By the time of the era of the Rhode Island celebration of the American Revolution (1971–1976), Rhode Island’s focus on its past had not moved much beyond the study of its English settlement, the rise of the political factions of Hopkins and Ward, the Revolution itself, events surrounding statehood, Samuel Slater and the rise of the textile industry, and Thomas Wilson Dorr’s efforts to restore a balanced democracy. Only a fascination with the millionaires and mansions of Newport seemed to carry the public interest beyond the events surrounding Rhode Island’s participation in the Civil War. While complete runs of the various RI newspapers from the colonial days through the Vietnam era stood guard, rank on rank, on the shelves of several libraries they were largely voiceless sentries to the state’s past. Little known and little used public annual reports, generated by the state, documented demographic and geographic changes to Rhode Island in the century between 1870 and 1970, but few historians looked at them.
It was largely the result of the efforts of the state’s historian laureate, Dr. Patrick T. Conley, who led the Bicentennial Commission and who sought to make the celebration broadly engaging, that it dawned on many that some 80% of the modern RI public — descendants of waves of immigration drawn to RI for jobs in textiles, machine tools, rubber, jewelry, and other manufacturing — had no place to go to see their story and that of their neighborhood. Very few leaders of the state’s various nationality groups up to that point were recognized for their accomplishments. Having so much of the state’s population relegated to the bleachers offered a bleak future for civic engagement and a penchant for using historical literacy as a tool for better public policy down the road.
The Bicentennial prompted a movement to look at and expand the public’s knowledge for appreciating the contributions of its large, diverse, many faceted community. The Bicentennial widened the lens of scrutiny to include not only the original Native American hosts of the first white settlers, but to include all the successive waves of immigrants right down to modern times to the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. First there were festivals, then scholarly publications, and, lastly, a movement for a state history center which would bring the field of Rhode Island history up to date. That is when the question arose, ‘What, after all, was the definition of Rhode Island history? What were its dimensions?’ All the states of the nation had changed substantially since the end of the Civil War. What, then, was different about Rhode Island by the last quarter of the 20th century?
By the beginning of the century, 1900, Rhode Island was the most densely populated of any state. In terms of percentages of population it was home to more immigrants and first generation Americans than any other state. It was the most highly industrialized state in the country and home to more invention patents than any other, save Connecticut. Until 1935, however, the political leadership of Rhode Island was drawn from the same gene pool as it had in 1865. It changed in the mid 1930s, sustained that change in 1975, 1995, and 2015. Perhaps the most comprehensive published over-view of modern Rhode Island history was the year-long, decade by decade, serial installments published by the Providence Journal, 1999–2000 by Scott McKay and Jody McPhillips.
This work of history coincided with efforts of the Rhode Island History Round-table, begun in the years just before the state’s 350th celebration in 1986, and whose accumulated discussion and workshops framed the questions and posed the answers as to just what the dimensions of RI history should be, what were the major themes that comprised the field. After about a decade of studies and review, there emerged a consensus that any state history museum seeking to be comprehensive had to address six major issues, commonly called the Six Big Ideas.