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

By Chaput, Erik J. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Chaput, Erik J., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.