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Top Populist Revolt: Dorr Rebellion

Shoddy cannons didn't deter franchise fighters in 1842

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Dorr RebellionNear Westminster St. and Cranston St., Providence (click for map)

The workers, over 200 of them, took up arms and marched through Providence on a foggy night in 1842 to strike a blow for democracy. The corrupt, out-of-touch state government was to be deposed by the sovereign people, who would start by seizing the local arsenal, near the modern intersection of Westminster and Cranston streets.

What followed was a little less dramatic than expected – the rebels’ two cannons failed to fire, and the troops scattered. The Dorr Rebellion, one of the more bizarre episodes in the Ocean State’s history, was over almost as soon as it began.

How did it come to a showdown in downtown? For some reason, the 1663 royal charter issued to the colony of Rhode Island wasn’t abandoned when the British were kicked out during the Revolutionary War. That meant the archaic requirements for the franchise – limiting voting rights to property-owning white males – remained in force, even as the Industrial Revolution was born at Pawtucket’s Slater Mill and many workers left the land to labor in cities and factories.

As a result, while 75 percent of adult males in Rhode Island could vote in the 18th century, fewer than half were eligible to vote by the 1830s, according to Marvin Gettleman’s “The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism: 1833-1849.” Conservative politicians on Smith Hill weren’t eager to reform the state constitution, and nothing much happened for decades.

Enter Thomas Dorr, a lawyer and local politician who seized on the issue of voting reform and took leadership of the movement as it swelled in the 1830s. Blocked from reforming matters through legal means, Dorr and his followers decided to do what any band of kooks does when it wants to be taken seriously: create a shadow government.

In 1841, the People’s Constitutional Convention was held. It drafted a new constitution for Rhode Island that extended the franchise greatly. Dueling elections followed, one under the new people’s constitution and one under the old charter, and two state governors were sworn in – Dorr for the rebels, Samuel King for the legal charter’s defenders. Parades and marches were held, violence was threatened, passions were running high and King asked President John Tyler for federal troops to put down the rebellion.

But that would prove unnecessary, as Dorr’s failed attempt to seize the Providence arsenal on May 18, 1842 pretty much ended the dispute. Repelled by the arsenal’s defenders – who were led by Dorr’s father and brother – the Dorrites dispersed, with Dorr himself fleeing the state. Only one person died in the whole affair. A few years later, Dorr would return from exile in New Hampshire and Massachusetts and be convicted of treason against the state, sentenced to hard labor for life (though he was quickly released).

“Although in retrospect there was ample material for satire in this almost bloodless rebellion,” Gettleman writes, the “dramatic if slightly comic events” had serious consequences. Conservatives sought to head off future rebellions by enacting a new state constitution, which was ratified in 1842 and granted the right to vote to most non-landholding white males who could pay a $1 poll tax. In the Jacksonian period, when states were gradually removing impediments to white male suffrage, it was a small but vital first step for Rhode Island.

Plus, it established a precedent for futile, semi-violent acts of local rebellion. Take note, future occupiers of University Hall.

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