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1842 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

Local Civil War

Declaring in their People’s Constitution that “all political power and sovereignty are originally vested in, and of right belong to, the people,” the followers of Thomas Dorr elected their man governor of Rhode Island on April 18, in defiance of the state government in Providence. The move very nearly led to local civil war.

Dorr and his fellow reformers had been angered by their state’s outdated system of apportionment, which granted a town like Newport six representatives to Providence’s four, although the latter was now more than twice Newport’s size.

Dorr had begun his activist political life as a state representative in the Whig party. When the Whigs resisted his reforms, he jumped to the Democrats, and when they proved equally gutless in his eyes, he helped form the Rhode Island Suffrage Association in 1840.

Among the members’ demands was that the state government hold a new constitutional convention. The legislature obliged; the delegates, however, had to be qualified property holders in the state. Dorr and his Suffrage Association revolted and drafted their own constitution to put before the people, a “people’s constitution,” as opposed to the one eventually offered by the “landholders.” Zealous as they were about voting as a natural right, however, Dorr could not persuade the People’s delegates to extend suffrage to black men, most of whom lived in the underrepresented capital. Blacks with property, who had voted before in Rhode Island around the turn of the century, were infuriated by their exclusion from the People’s Constitution and were supported by visiting abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

Any white male who was over twenty-one, landholder or not, could vote for delegates to the People’s Convention. The Dorrites’ constitution separated the state government’s functions more along the lines of the federal model, while the official state constitution lumped these together into a general assembly. Also, the Dorrites’ apportionment scheme awarded more seats to the cities, which allowed their Yankee opponents to paint them as the party of Irish immigrants.

The charter government refused to recognize the People’s Constitution, although nearly fourteen thousand adult white males had voted for it. Realizing that he could spend the rest of his life in jail for treason, Dorr nevertheless called an election and declared his candidacy for governor. The People’s party slate received more than six thousand votes in April; the Landholders held their own election the next month and made Samuel Ward King their governor. With his rival chief executive seeking his arrest, Dorr fled to Washington, hoping to enlist President John Tyler in his cause. Tyler listened to his arguments but only cautioned Dorr against using violence to settle the constitutional feud.

Dorr ignored the President’s advice. On May 17 he approached the Providence arsenal backed by 234 supporters and two derelict cannon. Some 200 men waited inside the arsenal, braced for a fight, but the ancient cannon failed to fire. The stalemate ended in the early hours of the morning when a fog moved in, followed by the Providence militia. The Dorrites retreated; Dorr himself hid in Connecticut before returning to lead a second move on Providence. His force was met this time not only by militia but, ironically, by black volunteers. (For this act of bravery, all black males would be given the vote in November by the renamed Law and Order party.) Dorr’s group was again dispersed, and he once again escaped, to New Hampshire. He gave himself up the following year and was sentenced to life imprisonment but served only one year of hard labor. Nevertheless, that year broke him, and after seeing his treason conviction revoked, he died in 1854. He was forty-nine.

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