Portsmouth to celebrate Founders Day

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — Mark your calendars! The town of Portsmouth will celebrate Founders Day this March. 

On March 7, 1638, a group of men, banished from the Boston Colony for their heretical beliefs and association with Anne Hutchinson, signed an agreement based on a revolutionary idea. Their idea was to join together in a civil “bodie politik,” or community, to be governed by “God’s Law,” where individuals could worship their religion in their own way without interference from the government.

The result was the Portsmouth Compact of 1638, a document that provided the ideological basis for the establishment of a Town Meeting-based democratic government starting in May of that year.

This unique document is considered by many to be the first document in American history that severed both political and religious ties with England, and argued for religious freedom.

The original document, written and signed in 1638, is maintained in the Rhode Island State Archives and will be displayed on the 380th anniversary of the signing of the Compact on Wednesday, March 7, at the Portsmouth Town Hall.

The 1638 “Portsmouth Compact” was first put on public display during Portsmouth’s 375th Anniversary celebration in 2013. Up until that time, the original document was stored in the “Newport Book.” 

The naming of the Newport Book comes from the Founders of Newport, who left Portsmouth in 1639 to settle on the southern end of Aquidneck Island. They took all the important records with them.

This rare historic document is now stored in its own folder at the Rhode Island archives and is brought to Portsmouth under police escort, accompanied by a state archivist.

In 2016, at the behest of the Portsmouth Historical Society, the Portsmouth Town Council established “Portsmouth Founders’ Day” as an annual observance to be held on March 7, the date of the signing of the Compact, and to include a public showing of the Compact.

This year’s display will include remarks from Town Historian and Historical Society President Jim Garman about the background and meaning of this historic document.

The 1638 Portsmouth Compact is something unique to Portsmouth’s history and seeing the actual document itself, written 380 years ago, is a unique experience.

The Compact will be on display from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 7 in the Portsmouth Town Council chambers.

This event is open to the public, but seating is limited, so early arrival is recommended.

Jim Garman’s talk will begin at 11:30 and a representative from the State Archive will be on hand to answer questions about the storage and handling of the Compact and other early Portsmouth documents.

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