Dorr's Rebellion

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DORR'S REBELLION. Dorr's Rebellion of 1842 was an extra legal attempt to achieve suffrage reform and create a new state constitution for Rhode Island. It was suppressed by force, but a new state constitution corrected the problems of disfranchisement and malapportionment that had provoked the uprising.

By 1841 Rhode Island was experiencing severe disfranchisement because suffrage under the state constitution (still the 1663 royal charter) was limited to male freeholders owning at least $134 of real property and their eldest sons. Industrialization in the northeastern part of the state had concurrently resulted in gross malapportionment in the General Assembly under the fixed apportionment scheme of the charter. The extant government, beneficiary of both evils, refused to concede reform.

In 1841 a radicalized reformist group, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, drew up a new state constitution, called the People's Constitution, that meliorated both problems. The association then submitted it for ratification to the entire male electorate, the disfranchised as well as freeholders. Suffragists relied on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, especially its ideal of popular sovereignty. Concurrently, the so-called Freeholders' government drafted its own reformed constitution but submitted it only to freeholders for ratification. The People's Constitution was overwhelmingly (but extralegally) ratified, while voters rejected the Freeholders' document. The suffragists then held elections for a new state government, in which Thomas Wilson Dorr was elected governor. They installed a state legislature and hoped that the Freeholders government would dissolve itself. Instead, it enacted repressive legislation and declared martial law to suppress what it considered an insurrection. President John Tyler declined to assist the Dorr government and covertly promised to back the Freeholders government. The Freeholders crushed a minor effort to defend the Dorr government by force. Dorr himself was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment but was later pardoned. The victorious Freeholders then adopted a new constitution that conceded most of what the suffragists had demanded.

In Luther v. Borden (1849) the U.S. Supreme Court refused to endorse suffragist theories of popular sovereignty. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared such matters to be political questions committed by the U.S. Constitution to the political branches of government (Congress and the president) for resolution.


Dennison, George M. The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial,1831–1861. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Gettleman, Marvin E. The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833–1849. New York: Random House, 1973.

William M.Wiecek

See alsoApportionment ; Rhode Island ; Suffrage .