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Dorr Rebellion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dorr Rebellion
Polemic supporting Dorrite cause.png

A polemic applauding Democratic support of the Dorrite cause in Rhode Island, 1844
Date1841–1842
Location
Result Charterite victory
Belligerents
Rhode Island Charterites Rhode Island Dorrites
Commanders and leaders
Samuel Ward King Thomas Wilson Dorr

The Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842) was an attempt by middle-class residents to force broader democracy in the U.S. state of Rhode Island, where a small rural elite was in control of government. It was led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, who mobilized the disenfranchised to demand changes to the state's electoral rules. The state was still using its 1663 colonial charter as a constitution; it required that voters own land as qualification to vote. A later legislative rule required that a man had to be white and own $134 in property in order to vote.

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Transcription

As the three-car train carrying Thomas Wilson Dorr wound its way north from Connecticut on May 16th, 1842, the streets of Providence came alive. Word had gotten out that Dorr, the so-called people's governor, was returning from his ten-day trip that included stops in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Dorr's goal was to take up the reigns as governor of Rhode Island under the People's Constitution, a document that he authored in 1841. There was just one problem: another man, Samuel Ward King, considered himself to be governor of Rhode Island under a royal charter granted in 1663 by King Charles II of England. "In the small state of Rhode Island, with the population of about a hundred thousand, there are at this moment two Governors, two Senates, to Houses of Representatives, and other things in proportion. a clear exemplification of Jefferson's maxim that, 'the world is governed too much,'" the Charleston Mercury. A huge crowd greeted Dorr at the train depot and escorted him around the city. In the spring of 1842, Rhode Island was torn between rival governors, two separate legislative assemblies, and two competing visions of the nature of American constitutionalism. The parade on May 16th ended at the home of Burrington Anthony. Tired after his long journey from New York, Dorr still mustered the strength to deliver a fiery forty-five minute address to the crowd that gathered in front of Anthony's house. No transcripts of the speech survive, but most first-hand accounts maintained that Dorr reiterated his ardent belief in the doctrine of the people's sovereignty. The crisis in Rhode Island represents a question of great moment for Americans before the Civil War: who were the rightful monitors of the constitutional order? Today, many take it for granted that that function falls the United States Supreme Court. But that question was far from clear for Americans of an earlier generation. For them it seemed quite possible that the Court, Congress and the Executive each had roles and that their into relationship remained uncertain. And even more outside our "modern" understanding and yet clearly compelling to many Americans, was the possibility of a role for "the people" - as a check and unconstitutional actions of government. "The establishment of any mode of convenience for amending the constitution through the action of the legislature cannot impair the general unalienated and inalienable right of the People at large to make alterations in their organic laws and any other mode which they deem expedient." - Thomas Wilson Dorr. A far different view of the political order was predicated on the belief that American constitutionalism was based on the rule of law and that a government could only be amended through prescribed legal means. According to the prominent Massachusetts statesmen Daniel Webster, "giving the slightest countenance" to Dorr's ideology "subjected all American government to the unbridled license of a mob." Not on hand to listen to the speech on May 16th we Dorr's father, Sullivan Dorr, and his mother, Lydia. "It grieves us to the heart to know that a son of ours arrived at so mature an age and so well versed in the laws of his country should be a participant in acts calculated to carry the state into destruction. We pray you to pause before you pass the Rubicon." - Sullivan Dorr. The headstrong Dorr did not heed their warning. Thomas Wilson Dorr was born into wealth and privilege in November 1805. Dorr was a scion from one of Rhode Island's wealthiest families. Sullivan Dorr was a prominent China trade merchant and a Providence businessman. Sullivan lived in Canton from 1799 to 1803, returning home to marry Lydia Allen in October 1804. Sullivan built his home on Benefit Street in Providence in 1809. The stately home, designed by John Holden Greene, was built on the house lot and original burial site of Providence's founder, Roger Williams. Thomas, the oldest of seven children, attended the Latin Grammar School in Providence and then the famed Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. From Exeter Dorr went to Harvard entering at the age of thirteen. He graduated near the top of his class in 1823. The restless young Dorr was not ready to settle in his native state. He studied law in New York City under the renowned Chancellor of New York, James Kent. Dorr toured the country for almost six years and occasionally practiced law in New York. In 1833, at the age of 27, he finally settled in Providence. Soon he was elected to the General Assembly from Providence's 4th Ward. Dorr immediately took up the reform torch. He drafted and secured a statute providing for regulation of state-chartered banks; he worked for the abolition of imprisonment for debt; in the realm of education, Dorr set up a permanent school fund, and as a member and then president of the Providence School Committee, he laid the groundwork for the state's first public high school. Dorr was also connected to the antislavery movement. Unlike ardent abolitionists, Dorr believed that congress lacked the constitutional power to interfere with slavery in the states were it existed. However, like many abolitionists, Dorr hated the notorious gag rule, which prevented antislavery petitions from being heard in Congress. hH also believed that Congress possessed the power to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia without approval of the slave states. "The younger generation will, we trust, come upon the stage of action with better feelings, sounder principles, and more courage in carrying them out and living up to them. When public sentiment is purified and elevated, we shall move with effect upon the District. That is the center, the capital, the citadel of slavery. The young men must take it. When it is taken slavery will die a natural death." - Thomas Wilson Dorr "You don't hear much about slavery from him until 1836. Where he introduces a resolution to abolish not only slavery, but the slave trade itself in the District of Columbia. He called it a national evil; that slavery was allowed to exist and that the slave trade existed and was carried on in the nation's capital. Like a lot of Dorr's more progressive resolutions, it was defeated resoundingly. Eventually, the compromise of 1850, which put off the Civil War for a few years, it did abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia, but not slavery itself, which continued to exist. So Dorr was fourteen years ahead of his time with that issue." The Rhode Island Suffrage Association formed early in 1841 with the goal of replacing the state's the legal structure with a modern document. "Reformers have taken steps to achieve a revolution in government because the state still adheres to the royal charter." - John Quincy Adams. More than any other state, Rhode Island failed to reconcile large-scale immigration with political democracy. During the American Revolution most states wrote new constitutions but Rhode Island continued to operate under its colonial charter. Lacking provisions for formal amendment, the 17th century charter became outdated as the 19th century wore on. Nearly 80% of Rhode Island's white male citizens could vote in the Revolutionary period. By 1840, however, the number had dropped to 40%. Rhode Island's legislature was reluctant to expand its sufferage requirements especially in light of a growing foreign population, many of whom were Irish Catholics. After numerous attempts to petition the legislature for a new constitution had failed, Dorr and the Rhode Island Suffrage Association organized an extralegal People's Convention, drafted a new constitution for the state, and sent out to the people to be ratified. The document contained a liberal suffrage provisions but excluded African-Americans from the franchise. A white-only clause was inserted over Dorr's strenuous objections. But nevertheless the People's Constitution was attacked in the abolitionist press. "What meanness, hypocrisy, oppression! Let the most determined opposition to this despicable prescription be made by the people." - William Lloyd Garrison. However, the People's Constitution did enfranchise the large laboring class of Irish Catholic immigrant workers who were unable to vote under the charter. The document was ratified by a lopsided vote in late December 1841. Elections under the People's Constitution were held in April 1842. Dorr ran unopposed for governor. The People's government met in assembly in early May under the specter of arrest. Both governments were uncertain on how to proceed. The charter authorities acted first by seeking the intercession of President John Tyler. Tyler was reluctant to get involved but as a precaution he did reinforce troops at Fort Adams in Newport and also held troops in standby in New York. Dorr, acting against the advice of many of his supporters, decided to capture the arms stored at the state arsenal on Cranston Street in Providence. On the foggy evening of May 17th, Dorr, along with an armed force of about 230 men and two Revolutionary-era cannon, marched from the Anthony home to the arsenal. Among those defending the arsenal and its contents were Dorr's father, brother, and uncle. Undeterred, Dorr demanded the occupants surrender; when they refused, Dorr ordered the cannons to be fired. The foggy night air prevented the cannons from firing. Dorr and his men fled into the night. The New York Herald humorously reported: "Killed: zero; Wounded: zero; Missing: 481; Scared: 960; Horribly frightened: 789; Fainted on the battleground: 73; Women in hysterics: 22; Temperance pledge broke (before the battle): 330; Governors missing: 1." The failed attempt to take the arsenal quickly became the butt of jokes in conservative Whig circles, but the seriousness of what Dorr tried to do in Providence was not lost. In a letter to her cousin, Providence resident Susan Backus, captured the paranoia of the city's populace. "The Rhode Island war, I am in hopes, is almost over, but i'm not sure, for reports say Governor Dorr is coming back with troops sufficient to take and kill us." - Susan Backus. Following a month in exile, Dorr determined it was time to return to Rhode Island in order to reconvene the People's Legislature on July 4th at Chepachet, a small village located in the town of Gloucester. Residents of Providence feared that Dorr would once again try to sack and burn the city on his way to Chepachet. Dorr had the support of the fiery New York Irish Protestant labor leader Mike Walsh. However, the charter government undertook an effective anti-Catholic campaign that successfully deterred the Irish from aiding Dorr. Dorr was slow to realize how much support he had already lost by his attempted attack on the arsenal. Few elected members of the People's Government went to Chepachet, and upon his arrival there, Dorr was met by a small rag-tag force of poorly armed men. Facing a force of nearly three-thousand charter militia, Dorr prudently released his men from service and once again fled Rhode Island. The charter forces operating under statewide martial law arrested more than 260 people over the next several days. During the upheaval, the legislature called for yet another constitutional convention. This time it was approved by an expanded electorate, including African-Americans, who received the right to vote after special referendum on the issue. "That 1843 constitution, and we use 1843 because it went into effect in May 1843, it was the Law & Order Constitution that was drafted by the Law & Order Convention in the concluding months of 1842 and after Dorr had been vanquished and had gone into exile. That constitution was productive of an incredible amount of internal strife in Rhode Island." Dorr lived in exile in New Hampshire and later Massachusetts for nearly a year and a half. During his time in New Hampshire, Dorr was protected by Democratic Governor Henry Hubbard. There was a five thousand dollar bounty on his head. In October 1843, he decided to return to Rhode Island to face charges of treason. His purpose in doing so was the test the concept of the people's sovereignty in court. In 1844, he was tried and convicted of treason against the state of Rhode Island. Dorr had the distinction of being the first man convicted of treason against a state. The murdering abolitionist John Brown will become the second in 1859. Dorr was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor and solitary confinement. His political adversaries began to feel pressure for his release and after a period of twenty months in a dank cell he was released from prison. Dorr liberation stock was issued to raise money for the cost of bringing his case by writ of error before the United States Supreme Court. Dorr's imprisonment became a rallying cry of northern Democrats in the 1844 presidential campaign. Dorr's time in prison ruined his already fragile health and as a result he never ventured far from his parents elegant home on the east side of Providence. He remained a bachelor, dying of complications from severe rheumatism, in December 1854. He never wavered in his belief of the sovereignty of the people. "The doctrine of Sovereignty. There is One overall, God blessed forever; and under him the People are sovereign. His Revealed Word is the higher law, to whose principles and rules of action recourse is had by the framers of constitutions and by legislators, to impart justice and equity to political institutions. The application of these principles and rules to the Constitutions and legislative acts of States, and to men in their political relations, is what has been called the democracy of Christianity. Rights are the gift of God. The definition and protection of them are the objects of just government. - Thomas Wilson Dorr.

Contents

Background

In addition to disenfranchisement of individuals, the state was dominated by rural interests. It had maintained representation in the legislature by towns. Under this geographic system, the larger populations in cities were dramatically under-represented. The effect in the 1830s was that the rapidly growing industrial cities were far outnumbered in the legislature by representatives of rural towns, to the annoyance of major businessmen and industrialists of the cities. The state legislature lagged in investing in infrastructure and other needs for urbanizing areas, and generally did not respond to urban needs. Furthermore, because of the property requirement, few immigrants or factory workers could vote, despite their growing numbers in the state.

In 1840 other states that had been receiving immigrants had a huge surge in turnout,[1] but Rhode Island voting remained suppressed.

At first, the middle classes took the lead in seeking change, including Dorr himself. He worked with the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. But the Charter government, controlled by rural elites, fought back hard. For six weeks in 1842, there were two rival governments. The Dorrites, led by self-proclaimed Governor Dorr, pulled back from violence (after their cannon misfired). Only one person died, a bystander killed by accident.

The Charter government compromised. It wrote a new constitution in 1843 that dropped the property requirement for men born in the United States but kept it for foreign-born citizens, and it apportioned more seats in the legislature to the cities.[2] That satisfied the native-born protesters.

The state government had the upper hand; the national government refused to intervene, and Democrats in other states gave Dorr only verbal encouragement. His cause was hopeless—he and five lieutenants were sentenced to life in prison. They were pardoned by the state governor in 1845 after the political agitation had ended. But the state did not drop the property qualifications for immigrant voters until 1888, at a time of increasing immigration.[3][4][5]

In the 1844 presidential election following the Dorr Rebellion and changes to voter requirements, some 12,296 votes were cast in Rhode Island, a significant increase from the 8,621 cast in 1840.[6][7]

Precursors and causes

Under Rhode Island's colonial charter, originally received in 1663, only male landowners could vote. At the time, most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers and held land, and this qualification was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s, the state required landed property worth at least $134 in order to vote.

As the Industrial Revolution reached North America and many people left the farms for the cities, large numbers of people could no longer meet the minimum property requirement to vote. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white men were ineligible to vote (women and most non-white men were prohibited from voting). Many of the disenfranchised were recent Irish Catholic immigrants or other Roman Catholics who lived and worked in the cities at salaried jobs.

Some [8] argued that an electorate made up of only 40% of the state's white men, and based on a colonial charter signed by the British monarch, was un-republican and violated the United States Constitution's Guarantee Clause, Art. IV: Sec. 4 ("The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government [...]").

Before the 1840s, activists made several attempts to replace the colonial charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights, but all failed. The state lacked a procedure to amend the Charter. The Rhode Island General Assembly, dominated by rural landowners, had consistently failed to liberalize the constitution by extending the franchise, enacting a bill of rights, or reapportioning the legislature based on demographic changes as the cities acquired much larger populations. By 1841, most states of the United States had removed property requirements and other restrictions on voting (see Jacksonian democracy). Rhode Island was nearly the only state falling significantly short of universal white manhood suffrage.

Rebellion

In 1841, suffrage supporters led by Dorr gave up on attempts to change the system from within. In October, they held an extralegal People's Convention and drafted a new constitution, known as the People's Constitution, which granted the vote to all white men with one year's residence.[9] Dorr had originally supported granting voting rights to blacks, but he changed his position in 1840 because of pressure from white immigrants, who wanted to gain the vote first. At the same time, the state's General Assembly formed a rival convention and drafted the Freemen's Constitution, with some concessions to democratic demands.

Late in that year, the two constitutions were voted on, and the Freemen's Constitution was defeated in the legislature, largely by Dorr supporters, while the People's Convention version was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum in December. Much of the support for the People's Convention constitution was from the newly eligible voters, but Dorr claimed that most of those eligible under the old constitution had also supported it, making it legal.

In early 1842, both groups organized elections of their own, leading in April to the selections of both Dorr and Samuel Ward King as Governor of Rhode Island. King showed no signs of introducing the new constitution; when matters came to a head, he declared martial law. On May 4, the state legislature requested the dispatch of federal troops to suppress the "lawless assemblages". President John Tyler sent an observer, then decided not to send soldiers because "the danger of domestic violence is hourly diminishing". Nevertheless, Tyler cited the U.S. Constitution and added that

If resistance is made to the execution of the laws of Rhode-Island, by such force as the civil peace shall be unable to overcome, it will be the duty of this Government to enforce the constitutional guarantee—a guarantee given and adopted mutually by all the original States.

Thomas W. Dorr from an 1844 book's frontispiece
Thomas W. Dorr from an 1844 book's frontispiece

Most of the state militiamen were Irishmen newly enfranchised by the Dorr referendum; they supported him. The Irish who played a growing role in Democratic politics in other states, such as Tammany Hall in New York City, gave Dorr their verbal support, but sent no money or men to help.[10][11]

The "Dorrites" led an unsuccessful attack against the arsenal in Providence, Rhode Island on May 19, 1842. Defenders of the arsenal on the "Charterite" side (those who supported the original charter) included Dorr's father Sullivan Dorr and his uncle Crawford Allen. At the time, these men owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In addition, among the defenders of Providence were many black men who had supported Dorr before he dropped them from his call for suffrage.[12] Dorr's cannon failed to fire, no one was hurt, and his army retreated in disarray.[13]

After his defeat, Dorr fled to New York and returned in late June 1842 with armed supporters and assembled his forces on Acote's Hill in Chepachet, where they hoped to reconvene the People's Convention. Governor King called out the state militia which marched on Chepachet to engage the Dorrite forces.

Charterite forces were sent to Woonsocket to defend the village and to cut off the Dorrite forces' retreat. The Charterites fortified a house in preparation for an attack, but it never came.

Dorr disbanded his forces, realizing that he would be defeated in battle by the approaching militia, and fled the state. Governor King issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest with a reward of $5,000.

Aftermath

The Charterites were finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause and called another convention. In September 1842, a session of the Rhode Island General Assembly met at Newport, Rhode Island and framed a new state constitution which was ratified by the old, limited electorate, was proclaimed by Governor King on January 23, 1843, and took effect in May. The new constitution greatly liberalized voting requirements by extending suffrage to any native born adult male, regardless of race, who could pay a poll tax of $1, which would go to support public schools in the state.[4][2] The constitution retained the property requirement for non-native born citizens and prohibited members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe from voting.[14]

In the next Presidential election held after the Dorr Rebellion in 1844, 12,296 votes were cast, a significant increase from the 8,621 cast in 1840.[6][7]

In Luther v. Borden (1849), the Supreme Court of the United States held that the constitutional right to change governments was unquestioned, but that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to interfere because the Constitutional guarantee of a "republican form of government" was a political question best left to the other branches of the federal government.[15][16]

Dorr's fate

An illustrated broadside denouncing Whig politicians who worked with Democrats to secure Dorr's freedom in 1845
An illustrated broadside denouncing Whig politicians who worked with Democrats to secure Dorr's freedom in 1845

Dorr returned in 1843, was found guilty of treason against the state, and was sentenced in 1844 to solitary confinement and hard labor for life. The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned, and Dorr was released in 1845, his health now broken. His civil rights were restored in 1851. In 1854, the court judgment against him was set aside. He died later that year.

Interpretations

Historians have long debated the meaning and nature of the rebellion.

Mowry (1901) portrayed the Dorrites as irresponsible idealists who ignored the state's need for stability and order. Gettleman (1973) hailed it as an early working-class attempt to overthrow an elitist government.[5] Dennison (1976) saw it as a legitimate expression of Republicanism in the United States, but concluded that politics changed little for Rhode Islanders after 1842 because the same elite groups ruled the state.

However, in 1854, the Rhode Island Supreme Court wrote: "The union of all the powers of government in the same hands is but the definition of despotism". Thus, the same Court that convicted Dorr of treason against the charter in 1844 ruled ten years later that the charter had improperly authorized a despotic, non-republican, un-American form of government.[17] Coleman (1963) explored the complex coalition that supported Dorr, with the changing economic structure of the state in mind, noting that the middle classes, the poor farmers, and the industrialists mostly peeled off after the 1843 Constitution gave in to their demands. The factory workers remained but were too few and too poorly organized to do much. He finds Seth Luther to be one of the few stalwarts from the working class.

The timidity of the Dorrites in 1842, Coleman concludes, was a reflection of their fragile coalition. Looking at Dorr himself, Coleman (1976) argued: "At several crucial moments the suffragists were offered, but rejected, every reform they asked for. Indeed, the constitution they were offered even went beyond their demands. But Dorr would have no part of it; the process of formulation was flawed. It did not conform to his concept of popular sovereignty. Compromise was out of the question. Principle became all. Dorr hungered for the vindication of principle. He was determined to lead his supporters into martyrdom."[18]

See also

References

Endnotes

  1. ^ David Leip. "1840 Presidential General Election Results". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  2. ^ a b "The Constitution of Rhode Island 1843". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  3. ^ Chaput (2013)
  4. ^ a b Dennison (1976)
  5. ^ a b Gettleman, Marvin E. (1973). The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833–1849. ISBN 978-0-88275-894-7.
  6. ^ a b David Leip. "1840 Presidential General Election Results - Rhode Island". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  7. ^ a b David Leip. "1844 Presidential General Election Results - Rhode Island". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  8. ^ See Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. 1 (1849).
  9. ^ https://sosri.access.preservica.com/uncategorized/digitalFile_1014d1c0-9672-44de-84d7-21c03d0ad898/
  10. ^ Arthur May Mowry, "Tammany Hall and the Dorr Rebellion," American Historical Review (1898) 3#2 pp. 292–301 in JSTOR
  11. ^ John B. Rae, "Democrats and the Dorr Rebellion," New England Quarterly (1936) 9#3 pp. 476–483 in JSTOR
  12. ^ "Warwick". Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  13. ^ Dennison (1976) p 85–86
  14. ^ 1843 Constitution of Rhode Island. Article II.
  15. ^ George M. Dennison, "The Dorr War and Political Questions," Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook (1979), pp 45–62.
  16. ^ John S. Schuchman, "The Political Background of the Political-Question Doctrine: The Judges and the Dorr War," American Journal of Legal History (1972) 6#2 pp 111–125. in JSTOR
  17. ^ (Dennison, p. 196)
  18. ^ Coleman (1976) p 536

Bibliography

  • Chaput, Erik J. The People's Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (2013).
  • Chaput, Erik J. "Proslavery and Antislavery Politics in Rhode Island's 1842 Dorr Rebellion," New England Quarterly (2012) 85#4 pp 658–694 doi:10.1162/TNEQ_a_00231
  • Chaput, Erik J. "'The Rhode Island Question': The Career of a Debate," Rhode Island History (2010) 68#2 pp 46–76.
  • Chaput, Erik J. "The 'Rhode Island Question' on Trial: The 1844 Treason Trial of Thomas Dorr," American Nineteenth Century History (2010) 11#2 pp 205–232.
  • Coleman, Peter J. The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790–1860 (1963), covers economic issues
  • Coleman, Peter J. "The Dorr War And The Emergence Of The Leviathan State," Reviews in American History (1976) 4#4 pp 533–538. reviews Dennison (1976)
  • Conley, Patrick T. "Popular Sovereignty or Public Anarchy? American Debates the Dorr Rebellion," Rhode Island History (2002) 60#3 pp 71–91.
  • Dennison; George M. The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831–1861 (1976) online
  • Fritz, Christian G. American Sovereigns: The People and America's Constitutional Tradition Before the Civil War (2009), ISBN 978-0521125604
  • Gettleman, Marvin E. (1973). The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833–1849. ISBN 978-0-88275-894-7.
  • Hiles, Jonathan. "The Dorr Rebellion and the Social Contract of Political Equality," Rhode Island History (2012) 70#2 pp 47–73
  • Mowry, Arthur May. The Dorr War; or, The Constitutional Struggle in Rhode Island (1901; reprinted 1970); sees the Dorrites as irresponsible idealists who ignored the state's need for stability and order
  • Williamson, Chilton. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760–1860 (1960),

Primary sources

External links

This page was last edited on 8 January 2020, at 00:16
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