For six weeks in 1842, the Dorr Rebellion gave Rhode Island two governments, each claiming to be the legitimate representative of the people.
Thomas Wilson Dorr was an unlikely champion of Rhode Islanders too poor to vote. He was born Nov. 5, 1805, to an aristocratic family in Providence. His father and uncle owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket. Dorr graduated from Harvard and practiced law.
The King’s Charter, Still
In 1841, Rhode Island was the only state that did not let all white men vote. The state had never adopted a constitution, and the colonial charter under which it operated only allowed the original grantees to decide who ran the government.
By 1840, the only people who could vote in Rhode Island were 40 percent of the white males – the ones who owned property. The rural elite that ran Rhode Island was quite happy with the status quo. Many others weren’t.
Thomas Dorr was one of them. Elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1834, he took up the cause of suffrage for all men. The entrenched powers rebuffed all his attempts at reform. Dorr eventually abandoned the fight for African American suffrage in order to win the support of immigrants, many of whom were Irish.
In October 1841, Thomas Dorr’s supporters held a People’s Convention. They drafted constitution that granted the vote to all white men who had lived in Rhode Island for a year. Meanwhile, the General Assembly held a rival convention and drafted the Freemen’s Constitution, which made some concessions to democratic demands.
The People’s Party adopted their constitution and put it to a vote: 14,000 voted for it, fewer than 100 against it.
The voters narrowly rejected the Freemen’s Constitution.
The Whigs who ran Rhode Island restyled themselves the Law and Order Party and elected Samuel Ward King governor. The People’s Party elected Thomas Dorr governor.
Both claimed to be the legitimate leaders of the state. Both King and Dorr appealed to President John Tyler, a Democrat, for help. Neither got it.
King declared martial law and Dorr’s supporters took up arms. The two sides clashed in Chepachet, R.I., though no one was killed.
On May 19, 1842, Dorr’s army bungled an attack against the state armory in Providence. Sullivan Dorr, Thomas Dorr’s father, was among those defending the armory. So were African Americans who had supported Dorr before he stopped supporting their right to vote. The Dorr’s cannon misfired, killing a bystander, and the Dorr army retreated in disarray.
King issued a warrant for Dorr’s arrest. He fled to Connecticut where the Democratic governor refused to extradite him to Rhode Island.
In March, the General Assembly had passed the so-called Algerine Law, which set harsh punishments for anyone meeting or running for office under the People’s Constitution. After the Dorr Rebellion fell apart, its supporters were rounded up, fined, imprisoned and bound for trial. Many were fired from their jobs.
Dorr returned to Rhode Island after a more liberal constitution was adopted. He was stried and sentenced to solitary confinement for life in prison. The public reaction was loud and swift, and Dorr’s sentence was reduced and he was released after serving a year. He died Dec. 27, 1854.
On July 22, 1842, a Democratic politician named Elisha Potter, Jr., wrote a letter to future U.S. senator John Brown Francis. Potter argued the harsh crackdown was damaging the Democrats linked to the Law and Order Party.
Kingston July 22, 1842
I have had my hands full for a few days with haying. The country here is a great deal pleasanter now than it generally is at this season. The rains have made every thing green.
Some men are forever politically blind. It appears to me we are in as much danger now as ever and principally on account of the unyielding spirit displayed in certain quarters. We are now quiet because the quiet portion of the suffrage party think they are to have all they wished in a legal way. Let them suspect that they are to be cheated out of it and we shall have the Devil to pay again.
Gen Anthony has called a meeting of all the military officers. What is this?
The persecution here has roused up the old democratic party. Morally right or not it is certainly impolitic. The cry of persecution will raise there friends. The exercise too will kill us.
My present position, united for certain purposes with violent Whigs, is unpleasant enough. But union with the Dem’s unless they change their principles and some of their leaders would be still more unpleasant.
I have experienced (expressed?) myself several times against the policy of some of the arrest. Some of the law & order men already denounce me.
The article from the Plebeian copied in the Journal of Thursday is most villainous.
Our friends ought to be cautioned about the excuses. If they are not most thoroughly scanned we shall hear of it hereafter. An investigation will be made into it by the Assembly. The papers will misrepresent every thing. It is easy to turn anything into ridicule and the late affair however serious it may seem to us (who look at the principles involved & their consequences) is rapidly beginning to take the guise of ridiculous with a great many even of the law & order party.
Who will Providence and Warwick send for delegates. It is time they begin to look out.
By our convention act the non-freeholders, are required to be registered. For the present voters there is no need of any registration.
There is not so much scolding about letting the blacks vote as was expected. They pass it off in this way, that they would rather have the Negroes vote than the d—d Irish.
Do let me hear the political news as you are almost the only one from whom I receive any information at all.
I see they have got to making horse shoes by machinery. What next.
Come see us anytime. Please remember me to Mrs. Francis & the children.
You are getting quite democratic again, dropping the title of Hon.
I shall find out the politics of our county August Court 2nd Monday