PROVIDENCE — Throughout its history, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has held the distinction of being the smallest state with the longest name.
But now that voters have decided to drop “and Providence Plantations” from the official name, the state with the longest name is Rhode Island’s neighbor to the north – the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
So Robert I. Burke, a Providence restaurant owner and history buff who created a local heritage trail, is asking Governor Gina M. Raimondo to mark the occasion with a tongue-in-cheek concession speech.
“Now that Rhode Island is officially ‘where the longest state name used to be,’ I believe it is fitting that we should officially make a concession speech and congratulate the new holder of the title,” Burke wrote in a Nov. 4 letter to Raimondo. “It would show how Americans are supposed to act when we vote for a transition.”
Plus, he said, “It can be a humorous lesson to our children and beyond.”
While some state names are far too short to be a threat (“You have to feel bad for places like Ohio – just four letters and they had to use one letter twice,” Burke said), Massachusetts shouldn’t grow too complacent with its new status as the state with the longest name.
“We all live in fear of the moment when the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands applies for statehood,” Burke said.
Burke notes that “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” has 27 letters – edging out the “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” at 26 letters.
“Our former name was a fierce competitor with 42 letters, really placing it in a class of our own,” he wrote to Raimondo. “In these distressing times, I ‘Hope’ (state motto, four letters) that you can work with Governor Baker to arrange a ceremony officially passing the title.”
Raimondo’s press secretary, Audrey Lucas, said, “We appreciate Mr. Burke’s creativity. The Governor is grateful that Rhode Islanders voted to remove a word so closely associated with slavery from our state’s official name.”
Burke, co-owner of the French restaurant Pot au Feu and creator of Providence’s three-mile Independence Trail, said he has no doubt that the state’s founder, Roger Williams, would have voted for the name change if he were alive today.
Language was very important to Williams, he said, noting that Williams wrote “A Key into the Language of America” in 1643, describing the American Indian languages in New England at the time.
Also, Williams established Providence to give “comfort to those distressed of conscience,” he said.
"If people in Rhode Island are distressed by the use of ‘plantation’ in the name, Roger Williams would have said, ‘I will comfort others – It’s what netops do for netops,’ meaning, ‘It’s what friends do for friends,’ " Burke said, referencing the way Narragansett Indians first greeted Williams in 1636: “What cheer, netop!”
He acknowledged that when the state was first named, the word “plantations” referred to large agricultural enterprises.
“For a long time, ‘plantations’ did not connote slavery,” Burke said. “But at one point, it became irretrievably tied to the concept of slavery, and Rhode Island played such a prominent role in the slave trade.”
He noted that many other words – such as “hath” and “dost” – are considered archaic, and he said the use of the word “plantations” without the connotation of slavery is now equally outdated.
With President Donald Trump refusing to concede the presidential race to President-elect Joe Biden, Rhode Island could provide a model for a peaceful transfer of a significant title, he said.
“Trump should take notes,” Burke said. “We are going to be an example to the nation.”