A polemic applauding Democratic support of the Dorrite cause in Rhode Island, 1844.
|Commanders and leaders|
|Samuel Ward King||Thomas W. Dorr|
Under Rhode Island's colonial charter, originally received in 1663, only landowners could vote. At the time, when most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers, this was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s, landed property worth at least $134 was required in order to vote. However, as the Industrial Revolution reached North America and people moved to the cities, large numbers of people could no longer vote. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white men were ineligible to vote (as were all women and most non-white men). Many were recent Irish Catholic immigrants or other Roman Catholics.
Some  argued that an electorate made up of only 40% of the state's white men, and based on a colonial charter signed by the British monarch, was un-republican and violated the United States Constitution's Guarantee Clause, Art. IV: Sec. 4 ("The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government [...]"). Before the 1840s, there were several attempts to replace the colonial charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights, but all failed. The Charter lacked a procedure for amendment. The Rhode Island General Assembly had consistently failed to liberalize the constitution by extending voting rights, enacting a bill of rights, or reapportioning the legislature. By 1841, most states of the United States had removed property requirements and other restrictions on voting (see Jacksonian democracy), leaving Rhode Island as almost the only state falling significantly short of universal white manhood suffrage.
In 1841, suffrage supporters led by Dorr gave up on attempts to change the system from within. In October they held an extralegal People's Convention and drafted a new constitution which granted the vote to all white men with one year's residence. Dorr had originally supported granting voting rights to blacks, but he changed his position in 1840 because of pressure from white immigrants. At the same time, the state's General Assembly formed a rival convention and drafted the Freemen's Constitution with some concessions to democratic demands.
Late in that year, the two constitutions were voted on, and the Freemen's Constitution was defeated in the legislature, largely by Dorr supporters, while the People's Convention version was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum in December. Although much of the support for the People's Convention constitution was from the newly eligible voters, Dorr claimed that most of those eligible under the old constitution had also supported it, making it legal.
In early 1842, both groups organized elections of their own, leading in April to the selections of both Dorr and Samuel Ward King as Governor of Rhode Island. King showed no signs of introducing the new constitution; when matters came to a head, he declared martial law. On May 4, the state legislature requested the dispatch of federal troops to suppress the "lawless assemblages". President John Tyler sent an observer, then decided not to send soldiers, because "the danger of domestic violence is hourly diminishing". Nevertheless, Tyler, citing the U.S. Constitution, added that
If resistance is made to the execution of the laws of Rhode-Island, by such force as the civil peace shall be unable to overcome, it will be the duty of this Government to enforce the constitutional guarantee—a guarantee given and adopted mutually by all the original States.
Most of the state militiamen were Irishmen newly enfranchised by the referendum and supported Dorr. The "Dorrites" led an unsuccessful attack against the arsenal in Providence, Rhode Island on May 19, 1842. Defenders of the arsenal on the "Charterite" side (those who supported the original charter) included Dorr's father, Sullivan Dorr, and his uncle, Crawford Allen. At the time, these men owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In addition, among the defenders of Providence were many black men who had supported Dorr before he dropped them from his call for suffrage. After his defeat, Thomas Dorr and his supporters retreated to Chepachet, where they hoped to reconvene the People's Convention.
Charterite forces were sent to Woonsocket to defend the village and to cut off the Dorrite forces' retreat. The Charterites fortified a house in preparation for an attack; but it never came, and the Dorr Rebellion soon fell apart. Governor King issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest, with a reward of $5,000. Dorr fled the state.
The Charterites, finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause, called another convention. In September 1842, a session of the Rhode Island General Assembly met at Newport, Rhode Island, and framed a new state constitution, which was ratified by the old, limited electorate, was proclaimed by Governor King on January 23, 1843, and took effect in May. The new constitution greatly liberalized voting requirements by extending suffrage to any free man, regardless of race, who could pay a poll tax of $1.
In Luther v. Borden (1849), the Supreme Court of the United States sidestepped the question of which state government was legitimate, finding it to be a political question best left to the other branches of the federal government.
Dorr returned later in 1843, was found guilty of treason against the state, and was sentenced in 1844 to solitary confinement and hard labor for life. The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned, and in 1845 Dorr, his health now broken, was released. His civil rights were restored in 1851. In 1854, the court judgment against him was set aside. He died later that year.
Historians have long debated the meaning and nature of the rebellion. Mowry (1901) denounced it, while Gettleman (1973) hailed it as an early working-class attempt to overthrow an elitist government. Dennison (1976) saw it as a legitimate expression of Republicanism in the United States, but concluded that politics changed little for Rhode Islanders after 1842 because the same groups ruled the state. However, in 1854, the state supreme court wrote "The union of all the powers of government in the same hands is but the definition of despotism"; thus, the same court that, in 1844, convicted Dorr of treason against the charter did rule, ten years later, that the charter had improperly authorized a despotic, non-republican, un-American form of government (Dennison, p. 196).
- Peter J. Coleman, The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790-1860 (1963), covers economic issues
- George M. Dennison; The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861. University of Kentucky Press. 1976.
- Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849 (1973), ISBN 978-0-88275-894-7
- Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, Might and Right by a Rhode Islander (1844), based on information supplied by Dorr
- Arthur May Mowry. The Dorr War; or, The Constitutional Struggle in Rhode Island (1901; reprinted 1970), hostile to Dorr
- Chilton Williamson. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (1960),
- Erik J. Chaput, The People's Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (2013).
- Providence College and Phillips Memorial Library's documentary and gallery of images on the Dorr Rebellion
- Woonsocket.org: Dorr War
- RhodeIslandSuffrage.org: The Industrial Revolution & Dorr's Rebellion
- Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Race in Antebellum Rhode Island
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