Dorr, Thomas Wilson

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Dorr, Thomas Wilson

Thomas Wilson Dorr, 1805–54, leader of Dorr's Rebellion (1842) in Rhode Island, b. Providence. After studying law under Chancellor Kent in New York he practiced in Providence. Although born of a wealthy Whig family, he became leader of the popular movement for universal manhood suffrage. Rhode Island, still governed under the colonial charter of 1663, restricted the vote to men owning $134 in land. Thus, most of the townspeople, whose numbers had greatly increased with the growth of industry, were disenfranchised. Since the ruling conservatives were deaf to pleas for reform, Dorr's party called a constitutional convention (Oct., 1841). The legislature called a rival convention, which drafted a new constitution, known as the Freemen's Constitution, making some concession to democratic demands. It was defeated in a state referendum by the opposition of the Dorrites. Their own convention drafted the People's Constitution, which was soon overwhelmingly approved in another referendum. Both the conventions and referendums had been extralegal, but the Dorrites claimed that their constitution had been approved in the referendum by a majority of those entitled to vote under the old charter. Early in 1842 both Dorr's followers and the charter government forces elected and organized governments, Dorr heading one and Samuel H. King the other. The federal government declined to interfere. In May, Dorr resorted to a show of arms. After an abortive assault on the Providence armory, his government collapsed and he fled the state. King declared martial law, many Dorrites were arrested, and the leader himself was indicted for high treason. Minor armed clashes and demonstrations caused much excitement. The conservatives, finally convinced of the strength of Dorr's cause, called yet another convention. A new constitution, greatly liberalizing voting requirements, was accepted by both parties. On its approval by the people in 1843, Dorr returned, was found guilty, and sentenced (1844) to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned, and in 1845 Dorr, broken in health, was released. He was restored to his civil rights in 1851, and in 1854 the court judgment against him was set aside.

See D. King, The Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr (1859, repr. 1969); A. M. Mowry, The Dorr War (1901, repr. 1968); A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945); M. E. Gettleman, Dorr Rebellion (1973); E. J. Chaput, The People's Martyr (2013).

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