The House of Borgia rose to political and ecclesiastical prominence during the Italian Renaissance. Though the Borgias were accused of murder, bribery, and simony, and the powerful Medici family were their enemies, the Borgias produced two popes, and their support of the arts helped spur the Renaissance.
17th century Rhode Island had a pair of leaders who could well be described as Borgia-esque. William Arnold was baptized on 6/24/1587 in Ilchester, County Somerset. His eldest son, Benedict, was baptized on December 21, 1615, also in Ilchester, and died June 19, 1678 in Newport, Rhode Island. No, he wasn’t THAT Benedict Arnold, but he was the Revolutionary War traitor’s great-grandsire.
|Arnold coat of arms|
William Arnold brought his family from Somerset to Hingham, Massachusetts in 1635. A year later the Arnolds followed Roger Williams (who was banished for radical notions, such as freedom of religion) to Providence, Rhode Island. In 1638 William and his sons moved a few miles south of Providence, and named their self-governed settlement Pawtuxet, after the nearby river.
|Rhode Island 1660|
The Arnolds got along well with Roger Williams, but the same could not be said of Samuel Gorton. On January 12, 1642-3, Gorton, who Roger Williams described as bewitching and bemadding poor Providence, purchased a large tract of land adjoining Pawtuxet from the Narragansetts, and named it Shawomet.
|Samuel Gorton on trial|
Samuel Gorton had been turned out of nearly every place he settled in New England. He came to Boston in 1636, but before long he fled Massachusetts’ Puritans for Plymouth. The Pilgrims quickly ousted him. Gorton tried Portsmouth, then Newport, and then Providence, Rhode Island, but didn’t stay long in any of those towns. William Coddington, Rhode Island’s chief Justice, had him whipped for insolence after Gorton referred to him as a “Just-Ass.”
Benedict and William Arnold loathed their new neighbor, knew that the Puritans in Massachusetts felt likewise, and also knew that Massachusetts eagerly sought to claim the entire western side of Narragansett Bay. Benedict had learned to speak the Narragansett language, and used his knowledge to undermine Rhode Island in general, and Samuel Gorton in particular. Two minor Narragansett sachems had partial control of both Pawtuxet and Shawomet. Benedict Arnold took these chieftains to Boston and persuaded them to submit themselves and their lands to Massachusetts. On September 8, 1642, Benedict and William Arnold formally turned the English settlement at Pawtuxet over to Massachusetts’ rule and protection.
With the Arnolds’ cooperation in hand, Massachusetts ordered Gorton to come to Boston’s court to answer charges of duress and theft made by the Narragansett chieftans. Gorton refused, and Massachusetts sent an army to arrest him, again with the Arnolds’ blessing.
Remember the Borgias’ reputation for assassination and murder? Benedict and William Arnold knew well that the Puritans considered Samuel Gorton to be a heretic, and that delivering him into Puritan hands placed Gorton in grave danger. Maybe they weren’t seeking Gorton’s life, but he was tried, not for harassing the Indians, but for heresy. He barely escaped execution when a single vote saved Samuel Gorton’s life.
|Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick|
The Arnolds likely wanted to see Gorton removed so they could occupy the Gortonists’ improved lands, but that plot failed as well. Samuel Gorton sought help from his powerful patron, the Earl of Warwick. The overt harassment of Samuel Gorton by his neighbors stopped, and Gorton named his settlement Warwick in gratitude.
William and Benedict Arnold also engaged in other shady practices. On October 27 1643, Massachusetts ordered that the Narragansett chieftans be lent fowling guns, and gave Benedict Arnold permission to supply them with powder and shot, though giving Indians arms and ammunition was directly counter to Rhode Island’s law. Samuel Gorton also complained that the Arnolds gave liquor to the Indians – also illegal – and traded on the Sabbath Day.
The Arnolds and their Pawtuxet residents remained under Massachusetts’ jurisdiction, despite a charter issued by Parliament in 1644 which included Pawtuxet as part of Rhode Island. On May 22, 1649, Rhode Island’s court sent letters to Pawtuxet, ordering them subject themselves to Rhode Island governance, but the Arnolds ignored it.
The Arnolds actively undermined Rhode Island’s affairs by providing information to the Puritans for sixteen years, and were repaid with food and protection. William wrote regarding Rhode Island’s effort to get a charter from Parliament: From Pawtuxet, this 1st day of the 7th month, 1651, Much Honored, I thought it my duty to give intelligence unto the much honored Court [of Massachusetts] of that which is now working here in these parts; so that if it be the will of God, an evil may be prevented … under the pretence of liberty of conscience about these parts, there comes to live all the scum, the runaways of the country, which, in time, for want of better order, may bring a heavy burthen upon the land … I humbly desire my name may be concealed, lest they, hearing of what I have herein written, they will be enraged against me, and so will revenge themselves upon me.
William Arnold maintained his opposition to Rhode Island, and Samuel Gorton went back to London in disgust. He returned in 1658 with a strong letter of protest from the Earl of Warwick, who was both an ardent Puritan and a sponsor of Providence settlement. Massachusetts was finally forced to withdraw, Pawtuxet submitted to Rhode Island, and on 5/31/1666 William Arnold swore allegiance to King Charles II. William Arnold remained in Pawtuxet for the rest of his life, reconciling with his neighbors as they mellowed with age.
|Benedict Arnold grave marker|
William's son, on the other hand, had already grasped a new opportunity. In 1653, at the age of 38, Benedict took his family to Rhode Island’s principal city, Newport. He became a freeman that year and represented Newport in Rhode Island’s government, and in 1657 he succeeded Roger Williams as President of the colony. He served as president, then as governor almost continuously from then until his death in 1678.
Now, Benedict Arnold had to fight off Massachusetts, his former protector. He complained to Parliament, and then to King Charles II about “sundry obstructions” and claims made by Massachusetts and Connecticut to the Narragansett Indians’ lands. He vigorously pursued a new royal charter for Rhode Island, and obtained that vital document in 1663, granting the colony self-rule and liberty of conscience in “a Republic of Liberty under Law, in which every man is king and no man subject.”
Though the Puritan colonies complained, and despite the “bad effects of their doctrines and endeavors,” President Arnold allowed the highly controversial Quakers to shelter in Rhode Island. He advised the Puritan colonies to let them speak their minds in peace, and in 1658 coolly noted that where Quakers were punished harshly, they unceasingly returned and gained adherents through their patient sufferings. However, Rhode Island’s government allowed Quakers to declare themselves freely, and in consequence, “they least of all desire to come [among us].”
Benedict truly turned over a new leaf, pursuing the union of Pawtuxet and Warwick with Rhode Island’s other towns. He became a warrior for civil and religious liberty, and the historian Samuel G. Arnold wrote of his famed ancestor that “he recognized the distinction between persecution and opposition, between legal force and moral suasion as applied to matters of opinion … throughout his long and useful life he displayed talents of a brilliant order which were ever employed for the welfare of his fellow men.”
If Benedict Arnold’s actions benefitted himself along with his fellow Rhode Islanders, that was all to the better. At Governor Arnold’s death, his will dispersed several thousand acres of land, cash, and livestock among his wife and children. If wealth was any indication, God had clearly poured out his favor on Benedict Arnold, and so did Rhode Island, even though Benedict had once been a force of opposition.
Jo Ann Butler is proud to be a 13th generation descendant from Benedict Arnold. She is currently writing about the Arnolds in the final volume of her A Scandalous Life series about Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter and Rhode Island’s earliest years.
“Benedict Arnold, First Governor of Rhode Island” - Hamilton B. Tompkins - Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society - 1919
The Great Migration - Robert Anderson, George Sanborn, Melinde Sanborn - 1999
The Arnold Memorial - Elisha S. Arnold - 1935