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THE FIRST COMMENCEMENT OF RHODE ISLAND
BY REUBEN A. GUILD, LL. D.
THE FIRST COMMENCEMENT OF RHODE ISLAND
COLLEGE, AND AMERICAN
The Continental Congress, in the earlier months of 1776, had been steadily drifting on towards the distinct assertion of separate sovereignty, and had declared it irreconcilable with reason and a good conscience for the colonists to take the oaths required for the support of the government under the crown of Great Britain, but it was not until the 7th of June, that Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, rose and read these resolutions :
"That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
"That it is expedient forth with. to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances.”
"That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
These resolutions, which were presented under direct instructions from the Virginia Assembly, were at once seconded by John Adams, of Massachusetts, Virginia and Massachusetts being then the leading colonies. It was a bold measure to advocate, for success was regarded as doubtful, and certain death awaited the leaders in case of failure. It was for this reason, doubtless, that Congress directed the secretary to omit from the Journals the names of Lee and Adams, the mover and seconder of these resolutions. The consideration of them was deferred until the following morning.
On the next day, Saturday, June 8, 1776, the discussion of them came up, and was continued on Monday. They were opposed, even with bitterness, by Robert Livingston, of New York, by Dickinson and Wilson, of Pennsylvania, and by Rutledge, of South Carolina. The latter is reported to have said privately, “that it required the impudence of a New Englander, for them in their disjointed state to propose a treaty to a nation now at peace; that no reason could be assigned for pressing into this measure, but the reason of every madman, a show of spirit.” On the other hand John Adams defended the resolutions, as stating “objects of the most stupendous inagni. tude, in which the lives and liberties of millions yet unborn were intimately interested.”
Notwithstanding the opposition at the beginning, the opinions of the majority in Congress proved to be clear and strong, and the pressure from their constituencies was yet stronger. Nearly every colony had already taken separate action toward independence. North Carolina was the first to take a bold progressive step, at the Mecklenburg Convention in May, 1775, and again in April, 1776. Massachusetts took a similar step during the same month. Virginia, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and New Jersey, soon followed with resolutions instructing their delegates in Congress to vote for independence. On the 4th of July, 1776, a unanimous vote of the thirteen colonies was given in favor of the GREAT DECLARATION, which pronounced them free and independent states.
What the leading colonies and statesmen were so slow to perceive, and so cautious to advance in 1775 and in 1776, was clearly set forth in almost the very arguments of the Declaration, by a pupil of President Manning and Tutor Howell, as early as 1769, at a commencement discussion in the town of Warren, before a crowded and approving audience. Thus the state of Rhode Island has the double honor of having advocated in advance the doctrines of civil and religious freedom and of American independence. It was one of her sons, too, a firm
friend and benefactor of the college, who as a leader in the affairs of the “Gaspee,” shed the first blood of the Revolution. Before proceding with the discussion, let me invite your attention to a few preliminary remarks respecting the college.
Brown University, the oldest and best endowed institution of learning connected with the Baptist denomination, dates back for its origin to a period anterior to the American Revolution, when in all the thirteen colonies there were less than seventy Baptist churches, with perhaps four thousand communicants. It is not surprising that, at the memorable meeting of the Philadelphia Association, held on the 12th of October, 1762, when the members were finally led to regard it, in the words of Backus, as “practicable and expedient to erect a College in the Colony of Rhode Island, under the chief direction of the Baptists, in which education might be promoted and superior learning obtained, free from any sectarian tests," the mover in the matter should at first have been laughed at, the thing being looked upon as, under the circumstances an utter impossibility. But leaders at that time, like Morgan Edwards and Isaac Eaton, Samuel Jones, Abel Morgan, Benjamin Griffith, John Sutton and John Gano, were men of faith. The attempt to introduce learning in the denomination through the Hopewell Academy had proved so far a success, but they felt that their rapidly growing churches needed something higher and hetter than a mere academy, and they wisely determined to secure it if within the reach of possibilities.
It is true that the college of New Jersey had been recently established at Princeton, under the auspices of that branch of the Presbyterian Church the Synod of New York, which sympathized with Whitefield and Tenent, and favored the “New Lights,” as revivalists were then called ; it is true, too, that the first presidents, Dickinson, Burr, Edwards, Davies and Finley, were devout men of liberal and comprehensive views; still they were Presbyterians, and the college was a Presbyterian college.
. At the time of which I speak, there was graduated from Princeton, with the second honors of his class, a man of won