A polemic applauding Democratic support of the Dorrite cause in Rhode Island, 1844.
|Commanders and leaders|
|Samuel Ward King||Thomas W. Dorr|
The Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842) was a failed attempt 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 disfranchised to demand changes to the state's electoral rules. The state used as its constitution the 1663 colonial charter that required a man to own $134 in property to vote, and gave an equal weight in the Rhode Island General Assembly to all towns no matter what their population. The effect in the 1830s was that the rapidly growing industrial cities were far outnumbered in the legislature, to the annoyance of businessmen and industrialists. Furthermore few immigrants or factory workers could vote, despite their growing numbers.
All other states in 1840 saw a huge surge in turnout, but nothing happened in Rhode Island. At first the middle classes (like Dorr himself—he was a Harvard man) took the lead. However 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 gave more seats in the legislature to the cities. That satisfied the native born protesters, who gave up on the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. It did not satisfy the Irish immigrants who rallied behind him. 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 in 1845 when the agitation had ended. Not until 1888 were the property qualifications dropped for immigrants.
Under Rhode Island's colonial charter, originally received in 1663, only landowners could vote. At the time, when most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers, this was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s, landed property worth at least $134 was required in order to vote. However, as the Industrial Revolution reached North America and people moved to the cities, large numbers of people could no longer meet the minimum requirement to vote. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white men were ineligible to vote (as were all women and most non-white men). Many were recent Irish Catholic immigrants or other Roman Catholics.
Some  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, there were several attempts to replace the colonial charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights, but all failed. The Charter lacked a procedure for amendment. The Rhode Island General Assembly had consistently failed to liberalize the constitution by extending voting rights, enacting a bill of rights, or reapportioning the legislature. By 1841, most states of the United States had removed property requirements and other restrictions on voting (see Jacksonian democracy), leaving Rhode Island as almost the only state falling significantly short of universal white manhood suffrage.
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 which granted the vote to all white men with one year's residence. Dorr had originally supported granting voting rights to blacks, but he changed his position in 1840 because of pressure from white immigrants. 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. Although much of the support for the People's Convention constitution was from the newly eligible voters, 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, citing the U.S. Constitution, 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.
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.
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. Dorr's cannon failed to fire, no one was hurt, and his army retreated in disarray.
After his defeat, Thomas Dorr and his supporters retreated to Chepachet, where they hoped to reconvene the People's Convention.
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, and the Dorr Rebellion soon fell apart. Governor King issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest, with a reward of $5,000. Dorr fled the state.
The Charterites, finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause, 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 free man, regardless of race, who could pay a poll tax of $1, which would go to support public schools in the state.
In Luther v. Borden (1849), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against the Dorrites, stating 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.
Dorr returned later 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 in 1845 Dorr, his health now broken, was released. His civil rights were restored in 1851. In 1854, the court judgment against him was set aside. He died later that year.
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. 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 state 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, in 1844, convicted Dorr of treason against the charter did rule, ten years later, that the charter had improperly authorized a despotic, non-republican, un-American form of government (Dennison, p. 196). Coleman, (1963) with the changing economic structure of the state in mind, explored the complex coalition that supported Dorr, noting that the middle classes, the poor farmers and the industrialists mostly peeled off after the 1843 Constitution gave into 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) argues:
- 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 martrydom.
- Chaput (2013)
- Dennison (1976)
- Gettleman, (1973)
- See Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. 1 (1849).
- Arthur May Mowry, "Tammany Hall and the Dorr Rebellion," American Historical Review (1898) 3#2 pp. 292-301 in JSTOR
- John B. Rae, "Democrats and the Dorr Rebellion," New England Quarterly (1936) 9#3 pp. 476-483 in JSTOR
- Warwick: A City at the Crossroads
- Dennison (1976) p 85-86
- Dennison (1976)
- George M. Dennison, "The Dorr War and Political Questions," Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook (1979), pp 45-62.
- 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
- Coleman (1976) p 536
- 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. The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849 (1973), 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),
- Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, Might and Right by a Rhode Islander (1844), based on information supplied by Dorr
- Providence College and Phillips Memorial Library's documentary and gallery of images on the Dorr Rebellion
- Woonsocket.org: Dorr War
- RhodeIslandSuffrage.org: The Industrial Revolution & Dorr's Rebellion
- Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Race in Antebellum Rhode Island