Wilkins Updike, a member of the noted Updike family of North Kingstown, was the youngest of eleven children of Lodowick and Abigail Updike, and he was the father of twelve. He was born on January 8, 1784, to a paternal line originating in Prussia and including Richard Smith, the first white settler in the Narragansett Country. Wilkins’s mother was a member of the prosperous Gardiner family of Narragansett.
Wilkins was raised near Wickford at Cocumscussoc, also known as Smith’s Castle, and studied with tutors before attending a prestigious private academy in Plainfield, Connecticut. Rather than move on to college, he studied law, first in the office of James Lanman of Norwich, Connecticut, who later became a U.S. senator, then under Newport Federalist leaders William Hunter and Asher Robbins, the latter of whom also became a U.S. senator; and finally, under Federalist congressman Elisha R. Potter Sr. in Little Rest (now Kingston), where he would eventually make his home. Updike was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1807.
As a lawyer, Wilkins Updike was quite successful. He became known both for his wit and his eloquence. One associate described him as a “very effective debater, his logic being compelling.” He drew his clientele mainly from Washington and Kent Counties.
On September 23, 1809, the young attorney married a woman from a prominent South County family, Abigail Watson, who would bear his twelve children before she died in 1843. The couple lived contentedly at Cocumscussoc in 1812 when financial disaster overtook Updike. One of his brothers (who has remained unidentified) went into business in New York and failed, and Wilkins was the guarantor of his brother’s business loan. To satisfy the deficiency judgment against him, Wilkins was forced to sell the Updikes’ historic 1678 homestead and three hundred acres of land to Benjamin Congdon of Warwick on December 31, 1812.
Cocumscussoc was not just another house. As a center of South County intellectual and social life, this rural estate just north of Wickford was the subject of a fascinating 1971 book by agricultural historian and former URI president Carl R. Woodward, who entitled it Plantation in Yankeeland. The loss of Cocumscussoc—or Smith’s Castle, as it was also called—greatly affected Wilkins Updike and left him heartbroken. Never again could he be induced to pass within sight of the old family mansion or even refer to it in conversation.
Fortunately, Updike proved resilient. He and his family made a new home in the South Kingstown village of Little Rest, the domain of the Elisha Potters. Little Rest, where the county courthouse and statehouse were within walking distance from his home, was an ideal place for the aspiring attorney. Combining law and politics, Updike represented South Kingstown in the General Assembly for many terms.
Updike’s most notable political achievement was his leadership role in bringing Henry Barnard to Rhode Island in 1843 to reform and modernize the state’s educational system. His other important legislative initiatives included the enactment of a law to give married women the right to own property in their own names and a successful campaign in the early 1850s to repudiate Rhode Island’s Revolutionary War debt because, in his opinion, it had been acquired by Providence speculators with no ties to the Revolution.
Updike served as a delegate from South Kingstown in three constitutional conventions: the first state constitutional convention in 1824, the Freeman’s convention in 1841–42, and the Law-and-Order convention in 1842, a conclave that drafted the state’s first popularly written Constitution. In all of these conventions, he was a stout and zealous defender of agricultural interests and the voice of political conservatism. He also served as a Van Buren delegate to the 1836 national Democratic convention in Baltimore.
During the 1830s, the party of Andrew Jackson in Rhode Island was rural-based and very resistant to political reform. Updike and many others from South County feared their rural ways would be overwhelmed by the Irish and other factory workers in Providence and the mills of the Blackstone Valley. The provision in the Law-and-Order Constitution of 1843 that each town, regardless of population, have one vote (and one vote only) in the state senate was a product of that fear. In effect, that apportionment rule gave the rural towns a veto over state legislation.
In addition to his long tenure as state representative, Updike sought higher office in 1847, when he ran for Congress in Rhode Island’s Western District as a Whig. In the initial balloting, he outpolled his four rivals, but he failed to gain the required majority. In the runoff balloting four months later, he lost to Democrat Benjamin Thurston.
As his grandson Daniel Berkeley Updike perceptively observed of Wilkins, “By profession, he was a lawyer. By long custom, he was a legislator. But if you had essayed to go down to the heart of the real man, you would have found that he was at the bottom of his nature an antiquarian.”
As a historian, Updike’s most notable works are Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar (1842), a detailed account of the development of the legal profession in Rhode Island; The History of the Alleged State Debt (1846), a learned but brief economic treatise on Rhode Island’s Revolutionary War debt, calling for its repudiation; and his magnum opus, the History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett (1847). This latter work was far more than a mere history of St. Paul’s Parish in Wickford; it has been described as “a volume alone in its class, at once a foundation for the history of the Church in this commonwealth and a picture of early social life.” Professor Woodward states, “None but an ardent man of letters could have produced a work of this caliber.” Today, it retains its total value as a source of information about life and society in the colonial Narragansett Country because of the prodigious original research on which it is based. In 1907, it was reprinted, together with a very personal biographical “sketch of the life of Wilkins Updike,” in a large, illustrated, three-volume edition by Wilkins’s illustrious grandson Daniel Berkely Updike, the proprietor of the Merrymount Press.
For the last two decades of his long life, Wilkins Updike lived a vibrant social and intellectual existence. His Kingston home welcomed many prominent politicians and literati, many of whom are members of The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. He was especially close to Elisha R. Potter Jr., his longtime legislative colleague from South Kingstown, who succeeded Henry Barnard as state education commissioner. In 1858, this duo commissioned James Sullivan Lincoln to paint a portrait of Barnard, which they then presented to the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Described as “a king of hospitality” at his sociointellectual gatherings, Updike made a romantic pitch to Sarah Helen Whitman, one of the regular attendees. This widowed father of twelve, then sixty-three, was politely rebuffed by the forty-four-year-old poet, who was smitten with Edgar Allan Poe.
Updike, the scholar, and bibliophile was elected to membership in many learned societies, and he had planned one more major historical work before his health declined in the early 1860s. His older brother Daniel, who had been elected the secretary of the March 1790 ratifying convention that met in the Little Rest Statehouse but adjourned without approving the federal Constitution, kept his notes on the convention until he died in 1842 when they were entrusted to the care of Wilkins. The latter intended to write a history of this transitional era of Rhode Island history, but such a book was never produced. In 1863, Wilkins gave this historical treasure to Secretary of State John Russell Bartlett, who then shared it with Justice William R. Staples. The judge used these notes in compiling his very useful book, Rhode Island in the Continental Congress (1870).
Wilkins Updike finally succumbed to a chronic illness on January 14, 1867, at the age of eighty-three. He was initially interred at Boston Neck in what is present-day Narragansett, but subsequently, his remains were transferred to St. Paul’s churchyard in Wickford on land donated to the church by his great-grandfather. In a testimony to the Updikes’ good genes, the average age at death of his ten siblings exceeded eighty years. One of his daughters, Isabella, married Richard Kidder Randolph, the Law-and-Order Speaker of the House during the Dorr Rebellion, and the nephew of President William Henry Harrison. Wilkins’s son Caesar Augustus was also Rhode Island’s Speaker of the House from 1860 to 1862 and the father of noted book designer and printer Daniel Berkeley Updike (1860–1941).
Wilkins Updike was eulogized by his associates and successors in the state legislature, who knew him best as “this old-fashioned gentleman, this vigorous and honest legislator, this hospitable and warm-hearted citizen, almost the last of a generation of true Rhode Island men.”
Wilkins Updike was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2002.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.