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History of the Rhode Island General Assembly


"Twice in every year...the Assistants and such of the freemen of the said Company, not exceeding six persons for Newport, four persons for each of the respective towns of Providence, Portsmouth and Warwick, and two persons for each other place, town or city, who shall be...elected...by the major part of the freemen of the respective towns...shall have a general meeting or assembly, [and]...shall be called the General Assembly;"

Thus reads Rhode Island's Royal Charter of 1663. This was a remarkable document for its era. It created an amazingly liberal and democratic frame of government, far more so than the prevailing government of the mother country. No doubt its framers and the first office holders under it would be astonished if anyone suggested to them that this parchment with its archaic language would be the basis of the government of the colony for over a hundred years, and then remain in force in the colony-turned-state for nearly seventy years more. But it did survive and remain useful all those years.

By any standard, the Charter was ahead of its time. It would be twenty years later in 1688, at the time of the Glorious Revolution, before the Mother of Parliaments at Westminster acquired the dominant position which Rhode Island's Assembly had conferred on it by this document. The charter established a form of pure government by an elected assembly presided over by a nearly powerless, elected governor. Few if any of the other American colonial assemblies could claim the same power. And this paramount position of the General Assembly is of far more than just historical importance. The legislative organs set up under the state's first Constitution in 1842 were patterned in terms of power and position after the Charter Assembly. To make this unmistakably clear the 1842 draftsmen inserted what is now Section 10 of Article VI: "The General Assembly shall continue to exercise the powers it has heretofore exercised, unless prohibited in this Constitution."

Cast in the constitutional terminology of our modern era, the Rhode Island legislature has all existing powers except those denied to it by the United States or the Rhode Island Constitution. It is not limited by any enumeration of powers. Moreover, it was not limited by any concept of separation of powers. Montesquieu, who developed this doctrine, was not to write his Spirit of the Laws embodying it until 1748. The Rhode Island Supreme court wrote in 1952 that: "until 1843, the General Assembly exercised supreme legislative, executive and judicial powers except as restricted by the Federal Constitution." The 1842 constitution paid lip service to the separation of powers doctrine, but effectively left the position of the legislative branch essentially unchanged. Article VI, Section 10 makes this clear. More important, however, is the fact that they created a governorship that was nearly as weak as the Charter office, and which had no significant appointive powers. The effect of this omission was to leave appointments up to the Assembly. Nor did the Constitution ban dual office holding between legislative and executive offices, as does the U.S. Constitution. In short, Rhode Island never adopted separation of powers as it exists in the federal constitution.

Clearly then, a history of the Rhode Island General Assembly is going to be in effect a history of the location and exercise of the governing power in the state. As one scans that history one finds that down through the more than three centuries since 1663, the manner in which the Assembly has exercised its great powers, or perhaps more accurately, the manner in which they were exercised, has gone through a number of changing patterns. These will be a major focus of this historical essay. These included, first, a mode of operation in which the Assembly functioned very much like a "town meeting" of the whole state, whose elected members spoke directly for, and indeed were often instructed by their town meetings, to speak for their constituents.

As the political life of the State developed and became more complex, party-like groups and political parties as we know them today, emerged. Patterns of legislative operation developed based on direction by party leaders who could rely on the loyalty of followers that party membership engenders. At times these leaders were not themselves legislators but exerted their influence from outside the Assembly, in a few cases as virtual party machine bosses. In later years the legislative process was managed by party majority leaders within the respective houses. Another model found governors, albeit as party leaders, exercising strong influence if not control over their party followers in the Assembly. More recent years have seen growing demands by rank and file legislators for more independence and a share in shaping the legislative agenda. The result has been a succession of "reforms" which have had the effect of shifting the balance in the sharing of authority between the party leaderships and the rank and file. Usually in the contemporary era, the shift has been progressively in favor of the rank and file.

In tracing the Assembly's history and these changing modes of operation and leadership, it will be necessary to sketch the pattern of politics in each era, and also to chronicle structural changes. These latter have had to do with the size, apportionment of seats and the impact of the franchise, among other issues. Since the way the Assembly operated, and under whose direction, was often shaped if not determined by changes in these structural arrangements, it will be helpful to weave these two lines of development together.

The earliest period - up to the last decades of the 18th century - seems to have been one in which the balance between the towns, dominant in the early period, and the central government represented essentially by the legislature, was the key issue. The towns had preceded the Charter unification of them into a single colony, and were jealous of their independence. As a result they kept their representatives on a tight rein. It appears that the Assembly functioned much as a kind of assembly of ambassadors from the towns bent on protecting the prerogatives of the latter. This concern is hardly unknown today, but seems to have been paramount during much of the first century under the Charter. Gradually, the Assembly gained more power for the central government in what was the first step toward the 19th and 20th century theory that the local units are the creatures of the State government.

In the decade or so prior to the American Revolution, the first change in mode of operation came about with the development of more or less permanent factions that functioned as political parties were to operate much later. The faction led by Samuel Ward of Westerly drew its strength from South County and Newport and that of Stephen Hopkins of Providence from Providence and the northern towns. Elections were hard fought with rudimentary "party" apparatus, get out the vote efforts, and a system of bribery barely camouflaged by the euphemism that voters were being "paid for their time" taken away from jobs or other responsibilities. This phrase was to reappear in the political lexicon of the state later.

The political battle was fought for the governorship as well as legislative offices, but the real stakes of the game were the latter. Control over the Assembly brought with it control over all of the appointive offices: administrative, judicial and even the officers of the militia regiments and justices of the peace. All of these were filled by the legislature on an annual basis. (Elections for the representatives to the Assembly were actually held every six months.) This in itself suggests how close the tie between legislators and constituents could be. The Assembly also raised money to fund the central governing institutions, such as they were, by apportioning levies to the towns which would then add these to the local real estate tax. It was typical for the winning faction to revamp the apportioning of these levies to favor the towns which had supported their cause and to the disadvantage of those which had gone for their opponents.

In this early period the apportionment of seats, as set forth in the Charter, in a rough way reflected population. Around the middle of the 18th century all of the towns had less than two thousand people, except for Newport and Providence. Structurally the Assembly was essentially unicameral until the 1690s, with the so-called assistants who were elected at large, sitting with the town representatives. At that point, however, the two groups began to meet separately, thus producing the Senate in embryonic form and launching the state on a bicameral pattern. As to the franchise, it was limited to freemen in the towns. The concept of freeman in time became property owner, and from then until the 20th century, a property-holding limit on the franchise was a feature of at least some of the elections conducted in the state. A property qualification during the 17th and 18th centuries, however, did not prove very restrictive. Since the colony was essentially agricultural, a large portion of the males would have the requisite property.

This situation changed with the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Rhode Island. This revolution in the state's economy was launched with the Slater Mill in 1790 and gathered headway rapidly into the new century. The political as well as the economic impact of industrialization was profound. It brought in train profound shifts in population within the state. People were drained from the outlying towns into those along the rivers where the mills were being built, and, were converted from farmers into mill hands. This had a least two major impacts on the political system and on the legislature. On the one hand it progressively warped the Charter-prescribed apportionment system into a more and more seriously inequitable allocation of seats. By 1840, just before the adoption of the first Constitution to replace the Charter, Providence had reached a population of over 23,000 having had less than 3,500 in the mid-18th century and only about 6,400 in the year in Slater Mill was built. At the other extreme, nine of the smaller towns actually decreased in population in the fifty years from 1790 to 1840. In South County five of the seven towns lost population, with North Kingstown and Westerly the only exceptions. Providence, with over a fifth of the state's population, had only four seats in the lower chamber of the legislature.

This situation was by no means an unwelcome one for the new textile entrepreneurs (many of whom were from merchant families, shifting to this new investment opportunity). Doubtless they sensed early that the growing landless mill segment of the population, if given representation and the vote, might very well challenge the economic elite's control of the state's political system. These people lost the franchise as renters of mill houses. Those that had remained on the land in the outlying towns became the political allies of the mill owners. The fact that their communities enjoyed disproportionate representation in comparison with the growing industrial towns was a quite welcome development for the state's governing elite.

As the mill sector of the economy boomed, the sons and daughters of the Rhode Island rural population could not supply all of the labor needed. The Irish famine and the flow of immigrants to the United States which it provoked was a welcome new source of mill labor. As the 19th century went on, the flow of immigration continued, with many actively recruited from French Canada. Then in the latter part of the century, Portuguese from the Azores, Italians from poverty-stricken southern Italy, and other groups of European immigrants flowed across the Atlantic, many of them finding their way to Rhode Island. In the three decades from 1840 to 1870, the population of the state doubled and very nearly doubled again by 1900. Clearly the native Anglo-Saxon population of Rhode Island was being swamped by the newcomers, and the hegemony - political and otherwise - of the old families and mill owners was threatened.

Most of the 19th century saw repeated reform efforts aimed at broadening the franchise and reapportioning the legislative seats. Stripped to its essentials, this was a struggle for control of the General Assembly and thus the power to govern. Early on it became a fight to replace the Charter with a new constitution. The Charter's archaic apportionment formula and the property qualification to vote which had been written into it were the specific targets. Out of a complex series of pressure campaigns, constitution drafting efforts, referenda and the close brush with civil strife called the Dorr War, there finally emerged the Constitution which went into effect in 1843.

That document represented the triumph of the old guard elite, though they made a few grudging concessions to the newer and most restless elements in the state who had been clamoring for reform. The key issues again were the franchise and apportionment. In these areas the Constitution drafters made some changes in the Charter scheme, while retaining, as noted earlier, the general allocation of power and the dominant position of the legislative branch. The new membership of the House was set at seventy-two with each town guaranteed at least one seat and the rest of the seats apportioned according to population. A key proviso was that no single city or town could have more than one sixth of the total. Even on the date of adoption this meant that Providence would have fewer seats than its population called for, and this disparity would grow by leaps and bounds. The Senate comprised one Senator from each town, period.

As to the franchise, the Constitution provided that all native born citizens could vote if they owned property or paid a dollar poll tax. Naturalized citizens all remained subject to the property qualification. In an industrial economy with large and growing numbers of mill workers of immigrant background, virtually all of whom rented quarters in the mill towns, this arrangement was well calculated to preserve the power of the economic elite and their rural allies.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, the battle for reform continued intermittently and the rearguard action by the elite to protect their hegemony for as long as possible also continued. Over time the Senate would emerge more and more as the bastion of their position, since the Yankee farmers in the small towns easily controlled it and continued to be allied to the mill owners and their associates. There were thirty-one cities and towns as of the adoption of the Constitution, of which sixteen could obviously elect a majority of the Senators. The sixteen smallest comprised about one-fifth of the total state population.

To talk of the march of reform during the sixty or seventy years following 1843 would be to create an image of steady, measured progress. It would be far more accurate to talk of occasional and halting steps toward a more representative legislative organ for the state. In 1909, a constitutional amendment was adopted that increased the size of the House to one hundred. The allocation to the cities and towns was not changed, but the limit for any one community was raised to one quarter of the total. This helped Providence some, but as of 1910 when the new amendment went into effect the capital city had forty-one percent of the state's population. Equitable apportionment was still far away. No change was made at this time in the Senate. A further provision affecting the House prescribed district rather than at-large election in cities or towns entitled to more than one seat. In theory at least, this could help the disadvantaged urban dwellers.

It was 1928 before any change was made in Senate apportionment. In that year the Constitution was amended to provide that any city or town with more than twenty-five thousand qualified electors (not population) would be entitled to an additional Senator for each additional twenty-five thousand or major fraction thereof. Under this, Providence secured four more senators - still far below what it could have had on the basis of population.

Turning to the franchise and the property qualification, in 1888 the latter was removed for naturalized citizens by constitutional amendment, but the same amendment decreed that only property holders could vote for members of city councils (or at town meetings). This meant that the Republican elite could control the city governments by controling the Councils. These bodies had all the power while the mayors for whom non-property holders could vote, were little more than figure heads. Undoubtedly the drafters of this proviso were bent upon preventing the development of Democratic machines based on the urban immigrant population, as had happened in most American cities. The broadened franchise did however mean that more people could now vote for state and legislative offices.

Toward the latter years of the 19th century the economic elite in the state broadened to include the proprietors of the railroads, street railway interests, gas and electric companies, and other interests who shared the same need to control state government as that felt earlier by the new textile magnates. The constitutional provisions discussed in the preceding paragraphs provided important advantages to these interests and their Republican allies through which to maintain control. The exploitation of these advantages depended on the development of the necessary political mechanisms, depended in other words, on a political machine that could deal effectively with the problem of marshalling the voters whose loyalty was dependable, and also with the legislative office holders on a continuing basis to insure that the machinery of the General Assembly operated as they desired.

What developed in Rhode Island was a Republican state machine that in almost all respects functioned like the Tammany type urban machines prevalent in most large American cities in the period. The best known boss of that machine was General Charles Brayton. His career in that role began about 1876. His principal link with the economic elite was Senator Nelson W. Aldrich. Aldrich had become a very influential figure in Rhode Island politics having served as member and president of the Providence city council, a member and Speaker of the House, and member of U.S. Congress. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1881. Aldrich had very important financial interests in Rhode Island and elsewhere and became such a leading figure in the Senate and in the national government that he was often referred to as the "general manager of the United States."

As time went on Brayton became his chief lieutenant in charge of his political base back in Rhode Island. The operation of what came to be called the "Brayton machine" can be briefly sketched. Its prime objective was the management of the General Assembly on behalf of Aldrich and the financial interests with which he and the Republican Party in the state were allied. It rested as suggested earlier on the pliable and indeed purchasable voters in the small towns. Again the euphemism was payment for their time. With their votes, given the prevailing apportionment schemes, both houses of the Assembly could be controlled. The basis of machine power for Brayton, unlike that of the urban bosses elsewhere whose reliance was on the immigrant urban masses, was, as Lincoln Steffens wrote, "the good old American stock out in the country."

Brayton controlled the selection of Republican legislative candidates because he controlled the campaign money, and later, could reward the faithful with positions in state service, judgeships or other benefits. Control of the Assembly meant control of the Grand Committee and its appointive powers. Steffens sums up the resulting situation neatly:

Brayton has great person power; he organized the Republican Party; he systematized the corruption of voters; he chose legislators; he organized the General Assembly and ran it; he has gradually altered the govern- ment of the State.

As a result, the government (again meaning effectively the Assembly) was at the beck and call of the important business interests in the state and those outside the state on Wall Street and elsewhere. The bills that Brayton wanted passed were enacted expeditiously, and those he opposed died. He was legislator - THE legislator in fact - but not in name. He ran things from the High Sheriff of Providence County's office in the State House.

Brayton died in the early 1900s. The machine did not die with him, but did gradually weaken as time went on. Constitutional amendments, as noted, contributed some to this weakening. The Democrats also began electing governors who, though with little formal power, represented a crack in the protective wall the GOP had maintained. The Assembly had begun conferring appointive power on the Governor, though at Brayton's behest did so subject to Senate confirmation. If the Senate turned down a nominee, it could elect a person in his place of their choice.

The Great Depression was the final blow to Republican hegemony and spelled the end of control over the General Assembly. With the reelection of Governor Theodore Francis Green to a second term in the Democratic sweep of 1934, the Democratic Party was able to gain control of the Senate for the first time, in addition to the House. Under Green's leadership the whole state administrative structure was revamped and modernized, and other reform legislation passed. This "Bloodless Revolution" brought many profound changes affecting the role and position of the Assembly. The Democratic Party at last had a large and dependable electoral majority in the state and was launched on a career of political domination, not unlike that which the Republicans had enjoyed from the Civil War to the Depression. The House remained firmly in Democratic hands most of the time. The GOP was on occasion able to hold onto the grossly malapportioned Senate. With Baker v. Carr, the US Supreme Court reapportionment decision, their advantage in the Senate was swept away and it like the House became overwhelmingly Democratic.

With few exemptions the Democrats held the Governorship until recent years, and thanks to the Green precedent and the strong party base which Governors could claim, the dominant leadership role in the General Assembly was that of the Governor. This was certainly true down through the Governorship of Dennis Roberts (1951-1959) and especially in his case. He came to the office after ten years as Mayor of Providence, and hence had the backing of the powerful City Democratic Party in his dealings with the Assembly. Gubernatorial leadership of the legislature had become the norm.

The combination of a weak Democratic successor to Roberts followed by three term Republican John Chafee, and probably growing restiveness under Gubernatorial tutelage, caused the Assembly to become progressively more assertive. It was also the case that the long tenure of Speaker Harry Curvin (1941-1964) laid a foundation for a pattern of internal leadership. Curvin became a powerful figure in the House, and the role of Majority Leader in the Senate had acquired somewhat the same position, though the traditions of the Senate have been rather less receptive to strong leadership. In any event a new phase in General Assembly management developed based on the strong position in each house of the majority leadership. Governors still played an important role, but the party leaders had to be brought along by negotiation and compromise.

There was progressively less patronage for the Governor to use for persuasion than there had been following the Green revolution which confirmed the Governor as chief administrator. Moreover, a civil service system was put in place in the late 1940s where a largely patronage system had existed before. The development of major policy and final compromises on the budget came to be made at summit conferences between the key Assemby majority leaders and the Governor. The leaders could represent their respective chambers where their control was rarely challenged. So firmly did this system become established that when Republican Governor Edward DiPrete broke the succession of Democratic Chief Executives in 1985 this negotiating relationship continued with little interruption.

The party leaderships in both houses have tended to wield more power than their counterparts in Congress have had for many years. Taking the House, for example, the Speaker makes all of the appointments to committees and committee chairmanships. This gives him and his close leadership associates control over both member advancement in the chamber and over the flow of legislation. His appointive power means that a member's career prospects depend on his or her loyalty and willingness to be a team player. At the same time, the control the system gives the Speaker over committee actions on the legislation before them means that members must be team players, if they want their pet bills to move. Typically committee chairs meet with the leadership to go over the bills in their files. Out of these meetings emerge agreed agendas for committee action. As in most legislative bodies, if a bill makes it out of committee it is almost certain to pass on the floor.

During the Curvin-Bevilacqua era (Joseph Bevilacqua was Speaker from 1969-1976), other features of the system also supported the power of the leadership. Committee meetings, for instance, were closed to both the public and non-member legislators. Most floor votes were voice votes with no record kept. Closed meetings and no posted agendas meant that members could only find out what was happening to their bills through friendly relations with the leadership. The public had little idea what was going on or how their Representatives had been voting. Much of the business was done in a single marathon final session that could last uninterrupted for a couple of days. Legislation was gavelled through in a way that kept most observers and members, except the leaders, in the dark. Since in politics knowledge is power, these characteristics made the mid-century mode of operation of the Assembly one of majority party leader domination in the extreme.

The most recent and current period in the history of the General Assembly could be said to date from 1976 and was a period of major reform in the legislative process. As such, it is unique in the history of this more than three hundred year old institution. Following the November election that year, there was a vacancy in the office of House Speaker. The weeks from election day until the start of the new year and of the new legislative session saw a feverish campaign for this critical office. Two factions emerged among the Democrats who had retained their heavy majority. One, backing Representative Edward Maggiacomo who had been the majority leader in recent sessions, can best be labelled as the old guard. The other was a coalition of various groups and individuals who had reason to want change which supported Representative Edward Manning. Some were idealists who had very fundamental problems with the way the House had operated up to then. At the other extreme were disgruntled individuals who had had poor relations with the outgoing leadership, which frustrated their goals and ambitions. There were numbers of legislators in between who had varying motives and concerns. Some of course bargained with the two groups for the best deal they could make in exchange for their support. Collectively these were the insurgents.

The latter finally won by one vote, and put Manning in the Speaker's chair. They set up a rules committee on which the most ardent reformers had a strong voice. A series of major rules changes was proposed and adopted. The general thrust of these was to open up the system, insure the availability of information on bill status and related matters, have committee meetings public, and floor votes recorded, and generally insure a more genuine deliberative process and better use of the House's time. In operation these changes were far from being window dressing. They transformed the process which had prevailed up to that time. More specifically, they represented a kind of Bill of Rights for the individual member, as he or she sought access to the system and achievement of legislative goals.

The changes did not however substantially reduce the ability of the majority party leadership to manage the legislative process and its outcomes. Rather, the reforms had the effect of making the leadership more responsible and, as it were, more democratic. For one thing, the leadership group was substantially expanded. Ten deputies to the majority leader were appointed with the vague notion that they would become a kind of whip system. (These new titles were also among the rewards offered during the speakership campaign for promises of support.) All of these and all the committee chairs were to meet, and did, as "the leadership" to discuss major issues and decisions. The unchallengeable power of the Speaker and two or three confidants was gone.

It was also true, following the reforms, that the top leaders operated with an awareness that they held their positions at the sufferance of the rank and file. This sense of dependence on continuing follower support stemmed in part, no doubt, form the contest they had waged to win, the commitments that had been made and implied during that campaign, and, indeed, the narrowness of the victory. It was also true that the kinds of Representatives who had been winning seats in recent years were better educated and more independent minded than many of their precedessors. The post-Watergate mood that the old ways must be replaced by a new more open and honest mode of operation no doubt shaped thinking and behavior among the members. From now on, though individuals members would still have to go and seek leadership help to move bills, leaders would have to take such appeals seriously and help whenever possible.

In sum, what had happened was not a radical change in operation under which the leaders surrendered most of their power to the rank and file, but rather one in which they could still lead with considerable authority, but must do so with the consent of their colleagues. This meant that they could still manage the flow of legislation and could take responsibility for crafting and building support for major measures to deal with pressing state problems. Though the reforms in Rhode Island's legislature coincided more or less in time and motivation with those initiated in Washington, the General Assembly did not end up being "Congressionalized" with its ability to function effectively undermined.

A process of change and reform of the sort described is not destined to be a once in a lifetime event. It tends to result in a new but a compromise mode of operation. The more ardent reformers will not have been satisfied. And even though a great improvement over the past, it will work to the disadvantage of some members. By the 1990s a sizable group of House members had developed reasons for wanting to install new leadership and embark on further reforms. Speaker Joseph DeAngelis did not seek re-election in 1992. A struggle for the Office of Speaker similar to the one fought in 1976 ensued. One faction, made up of most of the people who had supported the insurgent group in 1976, faced a faction, again as then, made up of a variety of individuals with idealistic or other reasons for wanting a change. Their candidates for Speaker were, respectively Representatives Russell Bramley and John B. Harwood. The latter ensured its victory by enlisting most of the Republicans in the House.

Once in office, Speaker John B. Harwood appointed a rules committee to review the reform proposals which members of the new insurgent coalition had advocated. Most of these were designed to further enhance the position of the individual member's access to the process. A few examples will illustrate the kind of change involved. Rules were revised to ensure that virtually all bills were heard and acted on in committee, to allow the sponsor to try to change an unfavorable committee recommendation on the floor, and to guarantee a week or more review period between committee finalization of the budget and floor consideration. All of these could have the effect of eroding a bit here and a bit there the management authority of the leadership. The one relating to the budget ensured time to those in and out of the legislature to mobilize opposition to proposed cuts, and draft large numbers of amendments. As a result, the rule changes lengthened floor consideration of the State Budget from a day or two to several days.

These House reforms were not limited in terms of their general thrust and motivation to the House alone. Without going into detail, it can be said that most of them were written, in one form or another, into the rules of the Senate. Actually the Senate was the first chamber in Rhode Island to witiness the tactic of a majority party faction enlisting minority (Republican) party allies to gain control of leadership prerogatives. In a curious episode in 1989, the Democratic caucus elected a majority leader whose defeated rival, with GOP support, changed the rules to strip the new leader of his authority. During the session, the de facto leader called the shots leaving the de jure leader to fume and protest. This kind of across the aisle coalition has happened in other states recently, and again suggests growing Legislators' demands for freedom of action and the decline of traditional party loyalties.

The election of 1994 saw the adoption of a constitutional amendment that represented the most recent chapter in the story of constitutional reform applied to the General Assembly. This was an omnibus amendment which raised from $5 per day to $10,000 per year legislative pay, while at the same time abolishing the much criticized legislative pensions. It also mandated a cut in the size of the House from 100 to 75 and of the Senate from 50 to 38, effective following the 2000 U.S. Census and the new districts created to match the new numbers. A 1992 amendment which increased the term of the Governor from two to four years may very well impact the relationship between the executive and legislative branches (legislators still have two year terms) and strengthen the Governor's hand in relation to the Assembly.

As promised at the beginning of this historical essay, it has recounted a considerable number of changes in the way in which the work of the General Assembly has been managed and a number of sources from which leadership has been exercised. Viewed from an end of the twentieth century perspective, some phases of this history may look discreditable or even sordid. The history of an institution however should be looked at with sensitivity to the historical context in which its stages of development took place and the beliefs and practices which were prevalent at the time. By that standard the phases and leadership practices through which the Rhode Island General Assembly progressed to its present status are made understandable, if not laudable by present standards.

It is also true that there is no necessary correlation between the adherence or lack of adherence of public officials to the ethical standards of their own day, and the quality of the governance which they provide. Much of the history of American politics is one in which institutions and office holders fell short of even the minimum ethical standards of their own time, and yet still provided effective and acceptable governance. The practice of political patronage, for example, was universal during the first century in the life of the Republic, and widely prevalent until recent times. The system functioned nonetheless and America became a world model of popular government.

The Rhode Island General Assembly has over the years represented its constituents, in their strengths and weaknesses, in their nobler aspirations and in their more self-serving demands, as well as a popularly elected assembly is likely to do. Reforms have been made when the felt need for them became insistent. And the remarkably liberal provisions of the Royal charter as to rule by the people and tolerance of diversity have, by and large, remained the principles guiding the process of governance most of the time in the years since 1663.

 


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