The original concept of having a statue constructed and placed atop the proposed new State House in Providence can be traced to the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Historical Society, held on January 8, 1895. At that meeting, the Society unanimously adopted a resolution which said, “Resolved that in the opinion of the Rhode Island Historical Society a statue of Roger Williams should surmount the dome of the State House about to be erected…”. This resolution, along with testimony in support of it, was presented by members of the Society to the Board of State House Commissioners at their meeting on January 12, 1895. It was also reported in a newspaper at the time that the Roger Williams Association urged that the founding father “be given the lookout assignment” from the top of the dome.
The next important reference to the statue is in the July 17, 1899 meeting minutes of the Board of State House Commissioners. Here is an extract: “A model of a figure to be placed on the dome was presented and examined. The offer to George T. Brewster to design the statue for $3,000.00 was read and also the offer of the Gorham Manufacturing Co. to cast the same for $2,000. Voted that a statue be placed on the lantern surmounting the dome. Voted that the detail of the statue be left to the architects.” The August 17, 1899 meeting authorized the signing of a contract with George T. Brewster and Gorham Mfg. Co.
In October, 1899, it was reported in the Providence Journal that the idea of a statue of Roger Williams, who was referred to as an “independent man” had been dropped in favor of a figure depicting freedom and sovereignty. The Journal also reported that Charles McKim, the chief architect on the spot, had final say over the design of the statue and felt that a figure of Roger Williams perched 235 feet above street level would be merely “a voluntary association of pantaloons, jacket and hat.” McKim had therefore accepted George T. Brewster’s design, which the artist himself referred to as “Hope”. One historian has theorized that McKim also rejected erecting a figure of Roger Williams because it would have been incongruous to have a statue in colonial garb on top of a Renaissance structure.
The statue was placed atop the dome on December 18, 1899. It is 11 feet tall (14 feet to the tip of the spear) and consists of 500 pounds of gilded bronze cast in five sections and riveted together. An unusual footnote to the construction is that the bronze came from a statue of Simon Bolivar which had been removed from New York’s Central Park because it was not thought to be “artistic”. The many references to an “independent man” that were made during the debate over the design of the statue are the origin of the name by which we refer to it today. The “Independent Man” has only been down from his lookout once. On August 9, 1975, the statue was taken down for repair and a new coat of gold leaf. He was returned to his rightful place on July 20, 1976.
Source: Leonard J. Panaggio, Tourist Promotion Division, RI Development