Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A virtually bloodless attempt to displace Rhode Island’s chartered government with a new constitution, new governor, and new legislature, the Dorr Rebellion was a manifestation of the tensions between property holders and democratic forces during the Jacksonian era that ended with a shift to more democratic government with the state.

Summary of Event

The Dorr Rebellion was the most dramatic effort in the United States before the Civil War (1861-1865) to make liberal changes in suffrage and representation. The timing and nature of the drama are best explained by the unique circumstances that existed in Rhode Island. In the aftermath of the American Revolution (1775-1783), property qualifications were part of the voting Voting rights;in United States[United States] requirements in all thirteen of the original states. Citizens who could not meet the property requirements, which varied from state to state, could not vote. Dorr rebellion (1842) Rhode Island;Dorr rebellion Dorr, Thomas Wilson State constitutions;Rhode Island Rhode Island;suffrage Rhode Island;constitution [kw]Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion (May 18, 1842) [kw]Dorr Rebellion, Rhode Island’s (May 18, 1842) [kw]Rebellion, Rhode Island’s Dorr (May 18, 1842) Dorr rebellion (1842) Rhode Island;Dorr rebellion Dorr, Thomas Wilson State constitutions;Rhode Island Rhode Island;suffrage Rhode Island;constitution [g]United States;May 18, 1842: Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion[2250] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 18, 1842: Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion[2250] [c]Government and politics;May 18, 1842: Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion[2250] Luther, Seth Brown, J. A. King, Samuel W. Tyler, John [p]Tyler, John;and Dorr Rebellion[Dorr Rebellion]

Vermont, Vermont;suffrage Suffrage;and U.S. states[U.S. states] which was admitted to the union in 1791, was the first to provide for universal male suffrage by permitting all free men more than twenty-one years of age to vote regardless of their level of property ownership. In the waves of democratization that swept over the United States during the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian eras of the early nineteenth century, every state except Rhode Island repealed its property qualification requirements. During the colonial era, Rhode Island had been a hotbed of political and religious toleration, far more liberal than its immediate neighbors. Ironically, the very absence of an established church that had made Rhode Island unique in seventeenth century North America was to impede political reform during the nineteenth century. Because the reform movement lacked an established church against which to struggle, efforts of reformers to rally popular sentiment to their causes necessarily were limited.

Rhode Island’s Rhode Island;Royal Charter state constitution was based on the Royal Charter of 1663, which limited the right to vote to men who owned at least $134 worth of land and their eldest sons. Increasingly out of step with the egalitarian tendencies of the later time, this vestige of the old order became even more obviously undemocratic as the development of industry served, by creating a large class of landless factory workers, to reduce the proportion of citizens who were eligible to vote.

At the same time, the success enjoyed by conservative elements in blocking all proposals for a reapportionment of legislative seats penalized the manufacturing areas and enhanced the power of the static and declining towns. Change of some sort, however, seemed certain to come. The examples of reform in other states proved contagious, and the growth of support within Rhode Island cut across social, economic, sectional, and party lines. Seth Luther Luther, Seth , a radical labor leader, lent his eloquent voice to the cause. Finally, the cumulative effects of economic depression after 1837 and the leveling spirit of the “log cabin” presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison in 1840 gave new urgency and a more radical tone to the demands for change.

The Rhode Island Suffrage Association, founded in 1840, gave voice to these demands. Professing feelings of despair over securing justice within the existing government, Thomas Wilson Dorr, Dr. J. A. Brown Brown, J. A. , and other leaders of the organization assumed the high ground of natural rights and appealed directly to the sovereign will of the people. A People’s Party was formed and held a convention that wrote the People’s Constitution, approved by an overwhelming majority of adult men in December, 1841. The new document provided for the more equitable reapportionment of legislative seats and removed the $134 freehold requirement for voting.

This turn of events spurred the charter, or legal, government into action. Under its auspices, the Landholder’s Constitution was written. On the vital matter of suffrage, this constitution retained the old property qualification but applied it only to foreign-born citizens. Through the influence of the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, however, it was defeated, and the stage was set for a political crisis. Elections were held under the People’s Constitution, and on May 3, 1842, “Governor” Dorr and a full slate of officers launched the new “government.” The people of Rhode Island then faced the conflicting claims of two authorities.

The crisis did not last long. Dorr’s new government hesitated to take possession of the state house and other facilities, and the extralegal legislature timidly adjourned after a two-day session. This adjournment enabled Governor Samuel W. King King, Samuel W. and his council of advisers under the charter government to seize the initiative. Appeals to the nativist, propertied, rural, and Protestant sentiments within the state drew support away from the Dorr regime, as did numerous arrests of Dorr’s followers under the Algerine law, which the legislature had passed in April to impose unusually severe penalties for participating in the new government.

Although President John Tyler Tyler, John [p]Tyler, John;and Dorr Rebellion[Dorr Rebellion] turned down all requests for federal troops, the official recognition that he gave to Rhode Island’s charter government lent to it additional strength. In the face of these moves, further efforts by Dorr proved to be unavailing. He did receive generous expressions of sympathy from key Democratic spokesmen in Washington (where he made a personal appeal) and from Tammany Hall Tammany Hall New York City;Tammany Hall , the headquarters of the New York Democrats and of the Society of St. Tammany, an oath-bound society dedicated to championing the enfranchisement of propertyless whites. However, no solid support for making good his claims on Rhode Island was forthcoming. On May 18, 1842, and again on June 27, he appeared at the head of a small military force, but each encounter with the state militia ended in a bloodless fiasco.

The sequel to the rebellion was more moderate than many had reason to expect. It is true that martial law, prolonged from the end of June until August 8, led to additional arrests and to one death in an isolated mob action. Life sentences were given to Dorr and five other leaders, but an effective check to the spirit of reaction developed as the rebellion became an issue in state politics. In 1845, Dorr and his associates were pardoned under the terms of a general amnesty act, and in 1851, their civil rights were restored.

The cause of reform could not be totally denied. Under the very government that had suppressed the uprising, a new constitution was adopted and put into effect in May, 1843. On balance, the new constitution represented a limited gain for political democracy. It clearly embodied the theory of government by consent, and its provisions generally made the government more relevant to modern needs. The inclusion of a bill of rights supplied another deficiency of the old charter, as did a more careful definition of the separation of powers. The reapportionment of seats for the lower house removed most inequities in the old scheme, although the provision for a maximum of twelve seats each for every town tended to favor the smaller towns over Providence. On the matter of voting rights, the constitution fell short of the ideal of universal manhood suffrage. All native-born citizens with two years of residence were allowed to vote upon the payment of a poll tax of one dollar. By contrast, the $134 property requirement was retained for foreign-born citizens. Since most of immigrants were laborers in the manufacturing areas, they were effectively disenfranchised.

Significance

A small state out of the main path of westward development that characterized the United States in the antebellum era, Rhode Island was not typical of U.S. political life during the 1840’s. Its entrenched customs and the virulent willingness of its property-owning class to defend their privileges were unusual. However, contemporary events such as the Antirent War Antirent War (1839-1846) that began in New York State in 1839 demonstrated that the social tensions exhibited in the Dorr Rebellion were hardly unique to Rhode Island.

The outcome of the Dorr Rebellion was a defeat for democracy only as seen in the narrowest possible terms. In broader terms, it was a symptom of the irresistible currents of democracy that had seized the United States during the nineteenth century. Although the Dorr Rebellion did not succeed in its immediate objectives, eventually it contributed to the gradual realization of the image of the United States as the fully representative democracy promised in the Constitution. Although the Dorr Rebellion was in quest of only universal white male suffrage, it was, in an oblique way, a part of the struggle that was to culminate twenty years later in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, Peter J. The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790-1860. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1963. Discusses social and political conditions in the Rhode Island of the era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dennison, George. The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976. A narrative and analytical history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eno, Paul F., and Glenn Laxton. Rhode Island: A Genial History. Woonsocket, R.I.: New River Press, 2005. Entertaining survey of Rhode Island history by two journalists. Eno has written extensively on Rhode Island history, and both authors bring to the book a flair for bringing to life historical figures such as Thomas Dorr.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gettleman, Marvin. The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism. New York: Random House, 1973. The most important book to date on the Dorr Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Chilton. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. Chronicles the Dorr Rebellion as part of the expansion of the franchise before the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Discusses the Dorr Rebellion as an episode in the history of U.S. working-class radicalism.

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