United States 1842
The Dorr Rebellion, named for its leader, Thomas Dorr, was the climax of years of debate in Rhode Island over the question of suffrage. In 1842 the state of Rhode Island had two separate governments and constitutions, each vying for legality and legitimacy. The established government was a product of Rhode Island's 1663 colonial charter, a framework that suffered increasing criticism for its antiquated provisions regarding suffrage and legislative apportionment. In late 1841 a movement for a reformist "People's Constitution" culminated with the ratification of a new constitution. The following spring, Dorr, elected under the new constitution as the "people's governor," attempted to organize a new state government under the provisions of the insurgents' document. Severe reprisals from the "Charter Government" prompted an attempt by Dorr and his followers to capture the arsenal at Providence. The attack was a singular failure. A few weeks later, after Dorr left the state, the state militia dispersed the remnants of the rebellion from its "headquarters" at the village of Chepachet. Following this victory, the Charter Government continued its repression of "Dorrism" in an attempt to prevent future insurrection. A new constitution for Rhode Island, adopted in 1843 and replacing the 1663 charter, eased some of the complaints regarding suffrage and apportionment that had given rise to the Dorr Rebellion. The insurgency of 1842, however, left its mark on the state's political landscape and continued to be a significant influence upon debates within Rhode Island society in the coming years.
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Event and Its Context
In the 1830s, the "Age of Jackson," with its emphasis on democratic politics and rhetoric that tended toward egalitarianism, Rhode Island was a curious anomaly. Most other states had revised their constitutions in favor of expanded suffrage (primarily the abolition of strict property requirements for voting), but Rhode Island still operated under the charter that had guided its affairs as a British colony. Promulgated in 1663 by the English monarchy, the charter government for Rhode Island was weighted toward the established towns and wealthy landowners who ran the colony's local affairs. Towns that were established after the charter took effect received fewer representatives in the colonial legislature, and the rights of suffrage devolved upon only those who held a large amount of land. Rhode Island was alone among the original 13 states in not replacing its colonial charter with a republican constitution after the Revolutionary War. The charter's continued operation into the early nineteenth century allowed political domination by a small class of wealthy landowners at the expense of the more rapidly growing strata of the state's society. By the early 1800s the advent of a significant textile manufacturing sector concentrated mostly in the northern part of the state meant that the number of artisans, mechanics, and other workingmen who were denied a voice in politics grew steadily. The government defined "freemen" (that is, those who possessed political rights under the 1663 charter) as those holding at least $134 in real estate; other forms of property and assets did not enter into the calculation. The result was disfranchisement of much of the state's nonlandholding male population who would have been able to vote under the guidelines of any other state. Because the charter weighted legislative apportionment in favor of the agricultural towns of southern Rhode Island, home of most of the state's wealthy landowners, there was no immediate likelihood that the legislature would relax the suffrage requirement. By 1800 the northern manufacturing areas were growing quickly and had a higher population than the southern towns, but until legislative apportionment reflected these realities, those who hoped for reform would be disappointed.
Landed interests were a brake on efforts at political reform through the first third of the nineteenth century. Sporadic efforts for constitutional modification met with inattention and failure until the 1830s, when Jacksonian democratic-style politics surfaced in Rhode Island. In 1833 a sustained effort at reform commenced with a vocal workingmen's presence. The next year, reformers organized the Rhode Island Constitutional Party. Membership in the new organization crossed socioeconomic lines; accompanying the workingmen was a leadership group drawn from the business and professional classes of the northern manufacturing towns, many of whom identified with the emergent Whig party. One of these Whig-leaning professionals was the Providence lawyer Thomas Wilson Dorr, author of the Constitutional Party's public address to the Rhode Island electorate, in which he advanced the principle of "popular constituent sovereignty" or the notion that citizens of a state had the inalienable right to remake their government along republican forms should the existing structure prove undemocratic or corrupt. Displaying its antecedents in the republicanism of the American Revolution, "popular constituent sovereignty" also asserted that the process of establishing a new government need not take place within the established channels of the current political system. This emphasis on popular grassroots mobilization to effect constitutional change would be at the heart of the subsequent events surrounding the question of constitutional reform in the state.
This agitation for reform went to the state legislature, with a minority of representatives (including Dorr and Samuel Atwell) arguing the principles of the Constitutional Party in the face of the landholding majority. The legislature called a constitutional convention for the spring of 1835, but the election of delegates was confined to the same narrow group of landholding "freemen" who voted in the state's regular elections. The convention thus reflected the entrenched landholding interests of Rhode Island and ignored demands for reform, finally adjourning in June without accomplishing anything. The Constitutional Party then found itself unable to advance its aims within the structure of Rhode Island's politics. The system of suffrage and representation established by the 1663 charter was simply too weighted in the favor of the southern towns and the landholding interests for the reformers to gather any momentum in the state's legislature. After the fall elections of 1837, in which Dorr and other Constitutional candidates for state and federal office were defeated, the party collapsed, and Dorr himself despaired of further efforts for reform.
The presidential election of 1840, with its appeals to popular mobilization and broad-based campaigning, helped mobilize another surge of reform activity in Rhode Island. Again, the impetus came from the workingmen of the northern towns, as mechanics and other workers in Providence formed a new, more militant organization for political reform, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, in the spring of 1840. Quickly, the association established branches throughout the state and began publication of a newspaper, The New Age and Constitutional Advocate, to advance its platform. The state legislature tabled a February petition for repeal of the 1663 charter, but throughout 1841, the association maintained a steady reform campaign. Parades, demonstrations, and public meetings continually raised the issues of suffrage and apportionment. The state legislature called a constitutional convention for November, likely hoping that something similar to the abortive meeting of 1835 would ensue. The association, however, had decided to abjure these efforts of the landholders, and—invoking the ideal of popular constituent sovereignty—called for a "people's" constitutional convention to meet in October.
The resulting "People's Constitution" reflected the longstanding grievances of Rhode Island's disenfranchised adult males. It eliminated the landholding requirement for suffrage and outlined a new system of apportionment that reflected more accurately the demographics of the state. The landholders' convention of November, in turn, produced a document that made only token concessions on these issues, and it received less than a majority in a ratification vote. In December a significant majority of Rhode Islanders who would be able to vote under the relaxed requirements of the People's Constitution ratified that document; this included a majority of the "freemen" according to the stricter definitions of the 1663 charter as well. Emboldened by this victory, adherents of the People's Constitution proceeded to establish a governing apparatus and elect Thomas Dorr, who had reentered the reform movement that year, as the "People's Governor."
The "Dorr Rebellion," as it became known, began with Dorr's efforts in May 1842 to organize his new government. At that point, the landholder-controlled state legislature began its implementation of the so-called Algerine law, a repressive measure aimed at wiping out Dorrism. With the arrest of many Dorrite leaders, Dorr himself fled the state. Critics accused him of cowardice, but Dorr argued that he was attempting to garner support for the people's movement in New York and Washington. Returning to Rhode Island a few weeks later, Dorr decided to seize the state arsenal in Providence. On the night of 17 May 1842, Dorr, Seth Luther (a radical carpenter and foremost representative of labor's presence in the movement), and over 300 men marched to the arsenal, which was well defended by the forces of the charter government (including Dorr's father and younger brother). The assault failed, and by morning Dorr's forces had largely dispersed. Later in the day, Dorr learned that most of his government had resigned. Again fleeing the state, Dorr pondered his next move while the remaining supporters of the people's movement encamped at the village of Chepachet. Dorr would return to join these forces, but faced with the prospect of battle with the state militia, Dorr's supporters again decided to disperse. On 27 June, Dorr wrote a letter intended for publication in which he announced what amounted to a surrender, and once again left the state.
Supporters of the charter government, calling themselves the Law and Order Party, moved quickly to suppress the Dorrite movement. The government declared martial law and over the next six weeks, many in the movement were arrested and imprisoned. The Law and Order forces, however, overreached themselves with the severity of this repression, and the legal voters of the state eventually ratified a somewhat more liberal constitution in 1843. After the ratification, Dorr announced that he would return to the state to aid in further reform. On 31 October 1843 he arrived in Providence and was promptly arrested for treason against Rhode Island. Tried, found guilty, and imprisoned, Dorr became a cause celébre, and his liberation became a major issue in state politics. Dorr was released in 1845 and died 10 years later, at the age of 49, his health shattered by the circumstances of his confinement.
A final blow to the Dorr Rebellion came in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the 1848 case, Luther v. Borden, in which Seth Luther sued for damages resulting from a raid conducted by state forces under the Algerine Law. The Court ruled against Luther, arguing that his claim that the People's Constitution was the government in force at the time had no merit. With this judicial invalidation of popular constituent sovereignty, the Dorr Rebellion reached its final conclusion. The issues of suffrage and constitutional reform, however, continued to play a key role in Rhode Island. Many former Dorrites returned to the Democratic Party and Dorrite issues (including the liberation of Dorr from prison) to reclaim power from the state's Whigs. The Dorr Rebellion thus stood firmly within the currents of larger debates over the nature of a democratic polity integral to the political culture of Jacksonian America.
Atwell, Samuel Y. (1796-1844): Atwell was a lawyer, representative from the northern Rhode Island town of Glocester, and a persistent voice for constitutional reform in the state legislature. In 1841 he became active in the Rhode Island Suffrage Association and was a key public supporter of Thomas Dorr, a commitment that waned somewhat after passage of the Algerine Law. Atwell was to represent Dorr at his trial for treason but could only join the case very late into the proceedings due to illness.
Dorr, Thomas Wilson (1805-1854): Harvard-educated and trained as a lawyer, Dorr was active in constitutional reform movements in Rhode Island. A member of the state legislature and the constitutional conventions of 1835 and 1841, Dorr became governor under the People's Constitution and led the movement that subsequently bore his name. Imprisoned for treason in 1843, Dorr spent almost two years in solitary confinement. He was released in 1845, had his political rights restored by a sympathetic state legislature in 1851, and died in 1854 from poor health that resulted from his prison term.
Luther, Seth (1795-1863): Originally from Massachusetts, Luther was a carpenter by trade and traveled widely throughout New England. He was actively involved in numerous reform movements and was instrumental in the early 1830s organization of the Massachusetts Working Men's Party and its crusade against child labor in the textile mills. In Providence during the height of the Dorr movement, Luther played a key role in leading worker support for the People's Constitution, even after much of the moderate leadership deserted Dorr in the wake of the charter government's repression under the Algerine Law.
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—Kevin M. Gannon