Hope and Providence Plantations

The citizens of the smallest state in the union--and my native state--have overwhelmingly voted to retain its full name: "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" rather than chop off the second half of that name.Why would anyone have wanted to deprive the next generation of RI school children, crestfallen when told that they lived in the tiniest state in the U.S., of the small consolation of knowing that it also had the longest name?Well, some said that it was necessary to repudiate the state's shameful legacy of participation in the slave trade, which they sensed was evoked by the word "plantations."The trouble is, that sense, while understandable with respect to modern English usage, does not accord with the historical usage of the word. "Plantations" is an archaic word for settlement.RI was originally two colonies: Providence Plantations, founded by Roger Williams, which both protected religious liberty and repudiated slavery, and Rhode Island, which was a center of the slave trade.So, in changing the name, RI would have lopped off the heritage of the implacable opponents of the slave trade and associated itself unequivocally with the part that embraced and profited off that trade.Why not, then, lop off "Rhode Island"?It's fitting, I think, that the two parts of our heritage go forward together. We cannot escape the sins of our past, but if we face them honestly, we can hope to be redeemed from them. Our state motto, after all, is "Hope."

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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