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Rhode Island. Office of Lieutenant Governor | State Archives Catalog

Name: Rhode Island. Office of Lieutenant Governor

Historical Note: The Office of the Lieutenant Governor exists within the executive branch of Rhode Island’s three-branch government (the other branches being Legislative and Judicial).  The office first came into existence in the colonial era (1640 to be precise).  The officeholder was originally referred to as Deputy Governor and, from 1640 to 1647, served only under the joint government of the towns of Portsmouth and Newport (Providence and Warwick had a separate government headed by a Chief Officer under the Parliamentary Patent of 1643).  The office ceased to exist in 1647 when the four towns formed a colony under this same patent, head by a President and four assistants.  In 1663, however, Britain’s King Charles II granted the colony a royal charter, which re-established the office of Deputy Governor, along with a Governor and council of ten assistants to manage the affairs of the colony.  At that time, the succession of the Deputy Governor to the office of Governor was not automatic if the latter office became vacant.  These individuals were referred to as the “Magistrates”.  At the same time, the earliest incarnation of the General Assembly (then known as the House of Deputies) was formed.  The two groups initially met together but in 1666, the House of Deputies separated from the Magistrates, thus beginning its evolution into the modern-day General Assembly. Gradually, the General Assembly evolved into an upper house (the council of assistants, previously known as the Magistrates along with the Governor and Deputy Governor) and a lower house (the House of Deputies).  The Governor and the Deputy Governor evolved into a separate branch of government.  By 1799, the assistants (upper house) had formed a body and the executive branch had completed its separation from the General Assembly.  It was in that year that the title of Deputy Governor was changed to Lieutenant Governor.  The duties of the office did not change. In 1842, the state of Rhode Island ratified a new constitution.  This constitution clearly defined the three branches of government – Executive, Legislative, and Judicial – and specified the role of each.  The Lieutenant Governor was placed in the Executive branch, granted chief executive power over the state along with the Governor, and was required to step in as Governor if a vacancy occurred in that office for any reason.  The constitution also specified that the Lieutenant Governor would preside over the Senate.  The terms for each office, elected by popular vote, were set at one year by the constitution. In 1901, state law was rewritten to incorporate the office of Lieutenant Governor under the heading of “General Officers”, along with the Governor, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the General Treasurer.  All were to be elected by popular vote and the term of office for each remained at one year.  Then, in 1912, a constitutional amendment extended the terms of all of the General Officers to two years.  In 1996, the terms of all of these officers were increased once again, this time to four years. Beginning in the 1970s, the state established several councils, boards, and commissions involving the Lieutenant Governor in various ways.  For some of them, the Lieutenant Governor acted as Chair.  For others, s/he served simply as a member.  In some cases, the Lieutenant Governor had authority to appoint other members.  These organizations are not always permanent but as old ones are phased out, new ones are created so the Lieutenant Governor always has these types of responsibilities. A law passed in 1994 removed the Lieutenant Governor from the role of presiding over the Senate, effective in 2003.  Since that time, the Senate has elected its own president. The Lieutenant Governor still has the responsibility succeeding to the office of Governor if the latter becomes vacant.  Aside from that, the Lieutenant Governor’s major responsibilities involve serving on various councils, boards, and commissions.

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