Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

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Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

Defendant: Thomas Wilson Dorr
Crime Charged: Treason
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas W. Dorr, representing himself, assisted bySamuel Y. Atwell, George Turner, Walter S. Burges
Chief Prosecutors: Joseph W. Blake, Alfred Bosworth
Judges: Job Durfee, Levi Haile, William R. Staples, and George A. Brayton
Place: Newport, Rhode Island
Date of Trial: April 26-May 7, 1844
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment "at hard labor in separate confinement"

SIGNIFICANCE: Today, the right to vote is often taken for granted. Indeed, less than 50 percent of all voters cast their ballots in a typical election. However, in 1842, a local civil war almost broke out in Rhode Island over the issue of who would have access to the ballot and one man was sent to prison for it.

After the American Revolution, not everyone was allowed to vote. Women and ethnic minorities were denied the ballot, but so were men who had no property or wealth. In some states, for example, a person had to pay a poll tax before he could vote. In others, only those who owned large amounts of land were allowed to participate in the electoral process.

By 1840, many of these restrictions had been abolished in the United States, but not in Rhode Island. There, the charter granted in 1663 by England's King Charles II was still serving as the state constitution, and it gave only landowners and their eldest sons the right to vote. As a result, more than half of the adult males in the state were denied voting privileges.

Reformers Draft a "People's Constitution"

In October 1841, a convention led by a 35-year-old lawyer and former state legislator, Thomas Dorr, drafted a "People's Constitution" that guaranteed free suffrage to all adult white males. Two months later, the document was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum that was held in defiance of the state government; even the majority of those who were already entitled to vote backed it. In the meantime, the state authorities and their supporters drafted another constitution that extended the franchise but still did not give the vote to every adult white male. This second constitution was defeated in March 1842, when it was presented in a referendum limited to those who could vote under the 1663 charter.

In April 1842, both the state government and the supporters of the People's Constitution conducted their own elections for governor, the state legislature, and a variety of other offices. In addition, the charter government passed a statute declaring the reformers' election to be illegal. Known as the "Algerine Law," the ordinance also made it a crime to run for office in the reformers' election and made it treason against the state of Rhode Island, punishable by life imprisonment, for anyone to assume a statewide office under the People's Constitution. All trials arising under the Algerine Law were to come before the state's highest court, the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members had already declared themselves in favor of the old government. Finally, although a jury trial was provided for, the alleged crimes could be tried anywhere in the state, thereby assuring that the state government could prosecute the defendants wherever juries could be found that were likely to convict.

On April 18, 1842, the supporters of the People's Constitution elected Dorr as governor. Two days later, the backers of the charter government feelected Governor Samuel King. In early May, both governors, as well as rival state legislatures and other officials, were sworn in. There were now two governments in Rhode Island, with the reformers in control of the northern part of the state.

Reformers Attempt to Seize State Arsenal

Both Dorr and King appealed to President John Tyler for help. Tyler urged reconciliation, but he later indicated that federal troops would intervene, if necessary, to support the charter government. In the meantime, arrests began under the Algerine Law. To revive the seemingly waning fortunes of the reformers and to assert his authority as governor, Dorr led over 200 men on May 18 in an attempt to seize the state arsenal in Providence.

The attack failed and, within a short time, martial law was declared by Governor King, the state militia was called out, and more arrests were made. (The arrests would continue until July.) The reformers' government quickly collapsed and Dorr fled the state with a bounty on his head. On August 25, 1842, Dorr was indicted in absentia in state court for treason against Rhode Island.

Despite Dorr's exile and the brutal treatment by the police of those accused of breaking the Algerine Law, there was still a lot of sympathy in Rhode Island for the reformers' cause. To placate this dissent, the charter government adopted in April 1843, a new constitution that granted the right to vote to all American-born adult males (including free blacks) who did not own land provided, they had been residents of the state for at least two years. This was good enough for most reformers, but not for Dorr (who was still a wanted man). Believing that his trial and conviction would be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in the process, gain national support to his cause, Dorr returned to Rhode Island on October 31, 1843, and was immediately arrested.

Dorr's Treason Trial

Dorr sat in the Providence, Rhode Island, city jail for five months before he was arraigned. On March 5, 1844, he pled "not guilty" and trial was set for April 26. Bail denied, Dorr remained in jail during the interim.

The trial was held before the judges of the Rhode Island Supreme Court (the former Supreme Judicial Council) at the courthouse in Newport, the center of pro-charter support where the prosecution had no trouble finding a jury that was sure to convict.

Assisted by three attorneys, Dorr represented himself and primarily relied on two lines of defense. First, he argued that since treason is defined by the U.S. Constitution, it is a crime that can only be committed against the United States and not against any individual state. Therefore, he could not be charged with treason against Rhode Island. Dorr also argued that, during the 1842 crisis, he was the legitimate governor of the state and the Algerine Law was invalid. After all, before the statute was adopted by the charter government, the People's Constitution had been overwhelmingly approved by the voters. Furthermore, pursuant to that constitution, Dorr had been elected governor and, after his inauguration, the reformers' government had repealed the law.

As anticipated, the court rejected these arguments and did not allow them to be presented to the jury. First, according to the judges, "wherever allegiance is due, there treason may be committed. Allegiance is due to a State, and [therefore] treason may be committed against a State of this Union." Second, only the state legislature that was elected in 1843, and not any judge or jury, had the power to decide which government or constitution was legitimate in 1842. All that the jury could do was to consider the facts of the case (of which Dorr made no attempt to deny) and accept the court's interpretation of the law.

The jury retired at 11 p.m. on Monday, May 6, 1844, to consider their decision. After waiting for the crowd to disperse, it returned a verdict of "guilty" three hours later. Motions were made for a new trial, but they were denied. On June 20, 1844, Dorr was sentenced to be imprisoned "for the term of his natural life, and there kept at hard labor in separate confinement." He was taken to the state prison in Providence two days later.

For one year, the sentence of solitary confinement was strictly enforced. Dorr was forbidden to speak or write to anyone outside the prison except for his lawyer; even his parents were denied access to him. His requests to take daily strolls in the prison's corridors and to have books to read were refused. Dorr's health deteriorated while in the damp, poorly ventilated prison. Still, Dorr was determined to fight on and when the state legislature offered an amnesty provided he swore allegiance to the 1843 constitution, Dorr refused.

Dorr Gains Sympathy

Sympathy for Dorr grew and his imprisonment became the key issue in the gubernatorial election of 1845. The "liberationists" won both the governorship and a majority in the state legislature that year and, on June 27, 1845, a law was passed unconditionally discharging Dorr from prison. This was not a pardon, however, and Dorr's civil and political rights were not restored until his uncle, Philip Allen, became governor in 1851.

During his imprisonment, Dorr worked on his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he was released before the case reached the court's docket. The matter was continually postponed until Dorr withdrew the appeal in 1849.

After his release, Dorr continued his interest in politics and served as an advisor to his uncle. However, Dorr's health further declined and, by 1854, his imminent death was obvious to everyone. That year, the state legislature passed a bill that annulled Dorr's conviction, but his opponents promptly went to the state supreme court and obtained a ruling that the legislation was unconstitutional. Dorr died a few months later on December 27, 1854, unrepentant to the end.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

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

Gettleman, Marvin E. The Dorn Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1973.

Mowry, Arthur May. The Dorr War. Providence, R.I.: Preston and Rounds Company, 1901. Reprint:New York, N.Y.: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968.

U.S. Congress. House. Interference of the Executive in Affairs of Rhode Island" (commonly referred to as "Burke's Report"). Report No. 546, 28 Cong., I sess., 1844.

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Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

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