Chief Justice William Read Staples of Providence was a prominent lawyer, jurist, and civil servant. With the possible exception of Samuel Greene Arnold, who eulogized him, Staples was also the premier Rhode Island historian of the nineteenth century. In the 1820s, Staples became a leader of the Rhode Island bar and then a prosecutor for the office of attorney general. In that public post his most notable assignment was as chief prosecutor in the infamous Avery Murder Trial of 1833. Staples also served as a member of Providence’s first city council in 1832. His learning and legal skill earned Staples the position of associate justice of the state supreme court in 1835. He served in that capacity until 1854 when he was elevated to the chief justiceship. For reasons that are unclear, he resigned that post in 1856, to accept an appointment from the General Assembly as the state’s first auditor general. Although law was his profession, History was Judge Staples’s great passion. He was an incorporator of the Rhode Island Historical Society (established in 1822) and its first secretary and librarian. His first major published work was a critical edition of Samuel Gorton’s Simplicity’s Defense (1835) describing the early history of Warwick. This effort was followed by a detailed history of his city–Annals of the Town of Providence (1843)–that covered events from the original settlement by Roger Williams down to the establishment of a city government in 1832, an event in which he played a leading role. These productions were followed by a Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee (1847), an annotated edition of the colony’s famous 1647 code of laws (1847), a history of the criminal law of Rhode Island (1853), and the valuable and voluminous history of Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution, entitled Rhode Island in the Continental Congress (1870), a work that appeared posthumously.
Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame
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