For six weeks in 1842, the Dorr Rebellion gave Rhode Island two governments, each claiming to be the legitimate representative of the people.
It was a spectacularly failed attempt to broaden democracy that pitted the laboring classes against the rural elite, father against son.
Thomas Wilson Dorr was an unlikely champion of Rhode Islanders too poor to vote. He was born Nov. 5, 1805, to an aristocratic family in Providence. His father and uncle owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket. Dorr graduated from Harvard and practiced law.
The King’s Charter, Still
In 1841, Rhode Island was the only state that did not let all white men vote. The state had never adopted a constitution, and the colonial charter under which it operated only allowed the original grantees to decide who ran the government.
By 1840, the only people who could vote in Rhode Island were 40 percent of the white males – the ones who owned property. The rural elite that ran Rhode Island was quite happy with the status quo. Many others weren’t.
Thomas Dorr was one of them. Elected to the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1834, he took up the cause of suffrage for all men. The entrenched powers rebuffed all his attempts at reform. Dorr eventually abandoned the fight for African American suffrage in order to win the support of immigrants, many of whom were Irish.
In October 1841, Thomas Dorr’s supporters held a People’s Convention. They drafted a constitution that granted the vote to all white men who had lived in Rhode Island for a year. Meanwhile, the General Assembly held a rival convention and drafted the Freemen’s Constitution, which made some concessions to democratic demands.
The People’s Party adopted their constitution and put it to a vote: 14,000 voted for it, fewer than 100 against it.
The voters narrowly rejected the Freemen’s Constitution.
The Whigs who ran Rhode Island restyled themselves the Law and Order Party and elected Samuel Ward King governor. The People’s Party elected Thomas Dorr governor.
Both claimed to be the legitimate leaders of the state. Both King and Dorr appealed to President John Tyler, a Democrat, for help. Neither got it.
King declared martial law and Dorr’s supporters took up arms. The two sides clashed in Chepachet, R.I., though no one was killed.
On May 19, 1842, Dorr’s army bungled an attack against the state armory in Providence. Sullivan Dorr, Thomas Dorr’s father, was among those defending the armory. So were African Americans who had supported Dorr before he stopped supporting their right to vote. The Dorr’s cannon misfired, killing a bystander, and the Dorr army retreated in disarray.
King then issued a warrant for Dorr’s arrest. He fled to Connecticut where the Democratic governor refused to extradite him to Rhode Island.
Prison and Death
In March, the General Assembly had passed the so-called Algerine Law, which set harsh punishments for anyone meeting or running for office under the People’s Constitution. After the Dorr Rebellion fell apart, its supporters were rounded up, fined, imprisoned and bound for trial. Many also lost their jobs.
Dorr returned to Rhode Island in 1843 after the state adopted a more liberal constitution. He was tried and sentenced to solitary confinement for life in prison. The public reacted quickly and loudly. Four Whigs, subsequently branded “Four Traitors,” broke with their party to support Dorr’s release. In the end, the state reduced Dorr’s sentence. He won his release after a year. He then died 10 years later, on Dec. 27, 1854.
This story was updated in 2022. Grave of Thomas Dorr by By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29086275.