“Poor Little Rhode Island, the smallest of the forty-eight …”
This popular song of a few decades ago, captures in a few words some important facts about the Ocean State. It is indeed the smallest—in area but not in population—of the now fifty states. At various times in its history it has been poor and, with the exception of Narragansett Bay, it lacks extensive or remarkable natural resources. These factors have done much to shape the history and culture of the state.
From the very beginning the colony's small size and relative economic insignificance (as seen from London) proved to be a curious boon. English authorities were apparently quite willing to confer a unique degree of local authority on Roger Williams's renegade settlements. The King Charles Charter of 1663 conferred remarkable democratic self-government and religious freedom on them that were enjoyed nowhere else in the colonies and certainly in few, if any, places in Europe. The phrasing of this unusual privilege of self-determination may well suggest a willingness to gratify the handful of subjects in light of “the remote distance of those places, ” as the charter put it. In other words, an experiment in this small remote place would be little threat to other British domains or to the uniformity imposed by the Church of England. The charter thus gave Rhode Island a measure of autonomy and freedom to regulate its own affairs enjoyed by none of the other colonies. Structurally the charter made the General Assembly, the representative body close to the people, the repository of most governmental power. The constitutions that followed essentially retained this structure, and the state still supports a representative body close to the people. Moreover, the size of the state continues to sustain a tradition of vocal and at times ornery citizen groups with access to and substantial influence on the political process.