337 Westminster Street
Providence, RI 02903
Phone: (401) 222-2353
Fax: (401) 222-3199
Open to the public
8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Government in Rhode Island began as a written agreement between its original settlers in 1637. The agreement stated that the colonists would act in accordance with rules and orders agreed to by a majority of the colonists. The colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations received its first Colony Charter from England in 1644. Due to the fact that the charter did not explicitly describe how a government should be organized, the men of the colony did not officially formulate a government until 1647. Instead, they continued to operate under their prior agreement made in the late 1630s. By 1647, however, it was clear that in order to govern the constantly growing colony, there would need to be more than a simple agreement amongst the original colonists. Therefore, in 1647 the first General Assembly, which included the majority of the inhabitants of the colony in the style of a town meeting, convened and formulated a set of Acts and Orders regarding colony rules and laws. These Acts and Orders called for the annual meeting of a “Courte of Election,” the predecessor of the General Assembly. While this Court seemingly unified the towns of the colony, in effect it continued to vest the majority of power in the towns. Indeed, according to William Staples in his book, Annals of the Town of Providence, “the towns, as such, parted with no more power than they deemed the exigency of the case required. They can scarcely be said, to have consented to anything more than a confederation of independent governments” (Staples, 67-68). This early iteration of the General Assembly functioned more like a town meeting than a modern legislative body.
It was not until 1663, and the receipt of the Royal Charter from King Charles II, that the General Assembly was officially entitled the General Assembly and took the majority of the power still left with the towns. This General Assembly, however, was not like the General Assembly with which we are familiar today. A unicameral body, the original General Assembly constituted the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. In fact, “the charter established a form of pure government by an elected assembly presided over by a nearly powerless, elected governor” (http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/studteaguide/genhist.html). Although there existed a Court of Trials, which dealt with the majority of the judicial affairs of the colony, for the General Assembly, “almost any part of the judicial process was open to its inspection and possible correction” (Conley, 9). This cumbersome General Assembly, at its biannual meetings, handled all of the government duties and problems that arose. In 1696 the General Assembly split and became bicameral; “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” (http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/studteaguide/genhist.html). The deputies and assistants (former names of current Representatives and Senators) acted as direct representatives of their districts and acted in the interests of their specific constituents. The Revolution did not change the formation or function of the General Assembly, and the bicameral structure created in 1696 has not changed to the present. There have, however, been changes in the apportionment and size of the two houses.
Under the first Rhode Island constitution, drafted and approved in 1842, the General Assembly was given the right to retain its duties and powers as it had enjoyed under the 1663 Royal Charter; “the General Assembly shall continue to exercise the powers they have heretofore exercised, unless prohibited in this Constitution” (Title IV, section 10, 1842 Rhode Island Constitution). This meant that the General Assembly continued to control some of the functions normally delegated to the executive and judicial branches of government. It was not until 2003 that this section of the constitution was repealed, in an attempt to more clearly delineate the separation of powers within the Rhode Island government.
Throughout its history, the General Assembly has struggled with imposing voting limitations, being truly a representative assembly, and apportionment. While the apportionment of the General Assembly under the 1663 charter was decided by population, it gave no instructions on how to reapportion as population changed. Therefore, as new towns were incorporated into the colony, existing towns shrank, and some expanded, the General Assembly still represented the population that existed in 1663. This caused an eventual gross misrepresentation in the General Assembly, one that was not addressed until the framing of the Constitution in 1842. The General Assembly also struggled with the imposition of voting restrictions. At first, there was a land requirement for the right to vote. At the beginning of the foundation of the colony, however, this did lot leave many men disenfranchised, as the majority of the original colonists were given a sizeable tract of land to own. As the colony grew, however, lots became smaller and smaller, and suddenly some men who owned land did not own enough to vote.
Today, the General Assembly is a bicameral legislative body. The upper house, the Senate, consists of 38 senators, and the lower house, the House of Representatives, consists of 75 representatives, and there are no term limits for senators and representatives. The General Assembly includes House standing committees, Senate standing committees, joint standing committees, and other committees appointed as needed. The General Assembly also oversees the production of Capitol TV, which televises all sessions of the General Assembly, some hearings, and other politically minded programs. The director of Law Revision, previously appointed by the Secretary of State, is now part of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services.
1989-1990 Rhode Island Manual.
Bicknell, Thomas Williams. The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. New York: The American Historical Society, Inc., 1920.
Conley, Patrick T. and Robert G. Flanders. The Rhode Island Constitution. Rhode Island: Praeger, 2007.
Greene, George Washington. A Short History of Rhode Island. Providence: J.A. & R.A. Reid, Publishers, 1877.
Staples, William R. Annals of the Town of Providence, From Its First Settlement, to the Organization of the City Government. Providence: Knowles and Vose, 1843