William Coddington (1601-1678), principal founder of Portsmouth and Newport and governor of Rhode Island, was born in Boston, Lincolnshire, England. By his thirtieth year, he had achieved substance and position. In 1630, at about the same time as John Winthrop’s arrival, he came to America as an assistant (director) in the Massachusetts Bay Company in the so-called “Great Migration.” In 1635, he was appointed to the colony’s committee on military affairs; from 1634to 1636, he was the Bay Company’s treasurer; and in 1636 /37, he served as a deputy in the General Court. In a secular way, Coddington was similar to the shrewd and conservative Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop. Still, in religion, he differed from the orthodox Winthrop and embraced the spirit of Antinomianism, or salvation by grace. When another devotee of this doctrine in the Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson, was hauled before the Massachusetts General Court in 1637 for “traducing the ministers and their ministry in this country,” Coddington was bold enough to enter protest on her behalf.
Hutchinson was nonetheless banished. Banishment did not at once overtake the influential Coddington. Still, in 1638, he withdrew to the island of Aquidneck, which he purchased from the Narragansett Indian chiefs Canonicus and Miantonomi with the help of Roger Williams. Here at Pocasset (Portsmouth), Coddington set up an Old Testament government of judges and elders, with Coddington himself as a judge. His name leads the signatories of the famous Portsmouth Compact of 1638. After the arrival of William and Anne Hutchinson and the contentious Samuel Gorton, disputes arose among these religious rebels, so Coddington and a number of his supporters left for the southern end of Aquidneck and founded Newport on May 16, 1639.
For a brief time, Portsmouth and Newport maintained a divided existence, but in 1640 they combined, formally declaring the new commonwealth a “Democracie or Popular Government” under the “Powre of the Body of Freemen orderly assembled, or the major part of them”; and “none [was to] be accounted a delinquent for Doctrine.” Coddington was elected governor of this island commonwealth from 1640 to 1647. His steadfast aim thenceforward was to keep his colony of Aquidneck under his proprietorship and independent of the mainland settlement of Roger Williams.
In 1644, Williams secured from Parliament a patent uniting Aquidneck, or Rhode Island, to his own mainland settlement of Providence Plantations. Warwick joined that union soon after. In 1651, Coddington succeeded in having this document amended by obtaining a patent, creating Aquidneck as a distinct colony, with himself as governor in perpetuity. This power play alienated not only Williams and Providence Plantations; it also angered many of Coddington’s own followers, who disavowed his action. When Roger Williams, Dr. John Clarke, and William Dyer journeyed to England to protest Coddington’s patent, Parliament annulled the Coddington grant in October 1652. At length, in 1656, Coddington reluctantly abandoned the plan to establish his own separate colony. “I, William Coddington,” he wrote, “doe freely submit to ye authoritie of his Highness in this colonie as it is now united and that with all my heart.”
Failure, however, did not attend him as a merchant. At Newport, before 1651, he built a “towne house,” and he conducted a large Newport estate on which he bred sheep, cattle, and horses, the latter for shipment to Barbados. Late in life, he espoused Quakerism and hosted that English sect’s founder, George Fox, in 1672. Having redeemed himself politically, Coddington
was thrice honored with the governorship of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (in 1674, 1675, and 1678). He was also thrice married and fathered thirteen children prior to his death in 1678, one of whom, William Jr., became governor of the colony from 1683 to 1685.
William Coddington was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.