"Let the People Remember!": Rhode Island's Dorr Rebellion and Bay State Politics, 1842-1843

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: In 1842 a group of Rhode Island reformers took up arms in order to remove the state's archaic form of government. The origins of the brief, but tumultuous, insurrection lay deep in Rhode Island history. The results, however, deeply impacted politics in Massachusetts. Beginning in 1776, all of the original thirteen colonies, except Connecticut and Rhode Island, wrote new constitutions and set up representative governments. The spark that led Providence attorney Thomas Wilson Dorr (180554) to move from a war of words to the field of battle involved the continued reliance on the 1663 colonial charter as the state's governing document. As John Quincy Adams noted in his diary on May 10, 1842, Dorr had taken steps to "achieve a revolution in government" because Rhode Islandstill "adhered" to the charter.'

Rhode Island's colonial charter, which was still used as the state s governing document as late as 1842, contained no amendment procedure and restricted suffrage to landowners possessing $134 of real estate. Because of the property qualification for voting, most of the populations of the growing commercial and manufacturing districts were disenfranchised. Indeed, only 40% of the state s white male population was eligible to vote by 1840.

Thomas Dorr was the scion of an old Yankee family. He received the finest education money could buy in the nineteenth century, studying at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then at Harvard College. After graduating from Harvard in 1823, Dorr studied law under the famed Chancellor James Kent in New York City, the most prominent state level jurist in the antebellum period. He was eventually admitted to both the New York and Rhode Island bar. Dorr entered politics in 1834 when he was elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly from Providence's Fourth Ward. The young Dorr championed numerous reform causes. During this period, Dorr also became connected with Massachusetts abolitionists, including Wendell Phillips, Edmund Quincy, and the poet John Green leaf Whittier. By 1840, however, Dorr had abandoned his once devout penchant for antislavery and devoted himself completely to reforming Rhode Island's governing structure. Dorr wished to see Rhode Island recover its once prominent commitment to democratic fervor.

After several earlier attempts at change were rebuffed, the working people of Rhode Island organized the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. Adapting the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence to their situation, Dorr and his followers called an extralegal convention and wrote a new constitution that greatly expanded the suffrage for white males, though the vote was not extended to African Americans. An overwhelming majority of Rhode Islanders - almost 14,000 in favor with just 52 opposed - cast ballots for the "People's Constitution. " Dorr was elected governor under this constitution in April 1842.

Samuel Ward King, Governor of Rhode Island under the charter, refused to recognize the People s Constitution. The state Supreme Court declared the People's Constitution illegal; the General Assembly declared that any attempt to enforce it would be considered an act of treason. On the night of May 1 7, 1842, the Dorrites trained several cannons on the state arsenal in Providence, where a large contingent of Rhode Island militia were stationed, including several of Dorr s relatives.

Dorr s attempt to take over the state government by force alarmed many. For some, serious constitutional issues were raised, while others feared that it might spark an uprising reminiscent of Shay s Rebellion in 1 786. As this article dramatically details, the stakes were also high in neighboring Massachusetts: its geographic proximity made the "Rhode Island Question " (as it was then called) anything but abstract. Violence, in the form of incursions of armed men into Massachusetts in pursuit of the rebels, along with questions about the role of the Massachusetts state government s material aid in the suppression of a "democratic" movement in a neighboring state, shaped the Massachusetts gubernatorial race in the fall of 1842. …