Dorr, Thomas Wilson

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Dorr, Thomas Wilson

Known for his central role in Rhode Island's 1842 Dorr's Rebellion, Thomas Wilson Dorr fought for changes in the voting laws of his native state. Until the tumultuous 1842 election of Dorr as governor, long-standing laws, based on the state's initial charter from England, had limited voting rights to men who owned at least $134 in land. Dorr helped to initiate a new state constitution that granted more liberal voting rights to white males. Once he was governor, some of Rhode Island's other authorities treated him as a traitor to the aristocracy. However, Dorr's extension of voting rights to a larger section of the populace stands as a cornerstone in the democratization of the United States.

The changes in voting rights that Dorr proposed flew in the face of Rhode Island's staunch political conservatism. Although the example of newer, noncolonial states had changed the way in which some older, seaboard states practiced government, Rhode Island adhered to the charter it had received from the English monarchy in 1663. This document's property requirement for voting excluded more than half of the white males in the state. By 1840 even though only one other state retained a possession-of-property requirement, Rhode Island's leaders claimed that their constitution served as a standard of law and order. The Rhode Island charter, they said, had spared the state from one unwelcome effect of industrialization: political turmoil. Changes in government, however, were inevitable, even in Rhode Island. An increase in industry led to an increase in crime, unemployment, and poverty. Such changes brought a demand for a populist voice in the workings of government.

"The servants of a righteous cause may fail or fall in the defense of it. But all the truth that it contains is indestructible."
—Thomas Dorr

During this time of change, Dorr emerged as a legal spokesman. Born November 5, 1805, the son of a wealthy Providence merchant, Dorr graduated from Harvard in 1823. He then pursued legal studies, and was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1827. In 1834 he participated in the Rhode Island legislature, where he led a campaign to secure extended voting rights. When the movement gained momentum, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association was founded, which Dorr headed in 1840. As support for Dorr grew, he formed the People's party. In 1841 the party organized a convention and drafted a more liberal state constitution, the People's Constitution. It appealed to voteless urban workers by issuing the vote to all white adult males.

To counteract Dorr's movement, the Rhode Island state legislature called for a convention in Newport in November 1841. Conservatives saw this as their chance to derail the newly drafted constitution. Many others, however, supported Dorr's constitution, and two rival positions emerged. In 1842 Dorr's supporters elected him governor of the state. For a while, Rhode Island had to juggle two state governments. Samuel H. King, representing opponents of Dorr's efforts, also served as governor, under the guides of the old charter. Both sides wooed the federal government for recognition. President John Tyler wrote to King and warned him that any attempt to overthrow Dorr's government would result in the presence of federal troops in Rhode Island.

Dorr sought to establish an entirely new state government in Providence. King declared that Dorr's party had initiated an insurrection. The sides of the dual government clashed, and, under King's authority, many of Dorr's supporters were imprisoned. On May 17, 1842, Dorr countered King's efforts to crush the People's "treason" and attacked the Providence arsenal. But the state militia held back the attack, and Dorr subsequently fled the state. King declared Martial Law and offered a reward for Dorr's capture.

A compromise came about when the state drafted a new constitution that extended voting rights. When the state adopted the new constitution, Dorr surrendered to authorities. Convicted of Treason in 1844, Dorr faced a life sentence of solitary confinement and hard labor. Protests followed the severe sentence. One year later, the state legislature granted him Amnesty and Dorr was set free.

Meanwhile, a suit arose from the competing state governments (Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. (7 How.) 1, 12 L. Ed. 581 [1849]). In response to one of the "political questions" in the case, the Supreme Court declared that Congress, under Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution, held the power to ensure a republican state government while simultaneously recognizing the lawful government of that state. The court ruled that the president had the authority to support a lawful state government with federal troops if an armed conflict occurred. The federal courts could not disturb these rights of Congress and the president. As President Tyler had not taken the opportunity to act on his power, the Court was left with much to decide regarding the balance between Rhode Island's new constitution and the federal executive and legislative powers.

The reform movement set forth by Dorr, later known as Dorrism, had helped to solidify a greater trend in U.S. government. As more and more people were granted the right to vote, the United States strayed further and further from the original English monarchical rule. Although the rebellion of Dorr and his followers consisted of only a few skirmishes, its influence extended through a long period of time. For conservatives, Dorrism represented bloody class conflict. For many others, Dorr appeared to be less a traitor than a representative for the common person. In 1851, Dorr's Civil Rights were reinstated, and in 1854, the verdict against him was reversed. Later that year, on December 27, Dorr died in Providence, in his native Rhode Island.