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Dorr, Thomas Wilson, 1805-1854. | State Archives Catalog

Name: Dorr, Thomas Wilson, 1805-1854.

Historical Note:

Thomas Wilson Dorr (November 5, 1805 – December 27, 1854), was American politician and reformer, best known for leading the Dorr Rebellion.

He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Sullivan and Lydia (Allen) Dorr. His father was a prosperous manufacturer and co-owner of Bernon Mill Village. Dorr's family occupied a good social position. Thomas Dorr never married, but two of his sisters wed prominent men and the son of one of them married a daughter of John Lothrop Motley. Dorr was no plebeian when he led the cause of the unenfranchised classes. As a boy, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. He graduated from Harvard College in 1823, and then went to New York City, where he studied law under Chancellor James Kent and Vice-Chancellor William McCoun. He was admitted to the bar in 1827 and returned to Providence to practice. He began his political career as a representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1834.

In the half-century following the American Revolution efforts were made to extend the limited franchise more widely. In Rhode Island such attempts were made at intervals from 1797 to 1834, but had invariably been obstructed by the government. In 1834 a convention met at Providence to consider the matter again, and Dorr was a member of the committee which drew up an address to the people. All efforts at reform, however, were once more blocked by the legislature. By 1841 Rhode Island was almost the only state which had not adopted universal suffrage for white males. It was also the only state which had not adopted a written constitution, and the old colonial charter, under which the state was ruled, was outdated. Under that document the original grantees had had the sole right to decide who should have a voice in the management of public affairs, and they had decreed the possession of a moderate landed estate as a qualification for the franchise. By 1840 this ancient requirement meant that over half the adult male population did not have the franchise, and about nineteen towns, having a total population of only 3,500 voters, returned over half the legislature, so that less than 1,800 voters could decide the future of a state where 108,000 persons lived. Moreover, no person who did not own real estate could bring suit for recovery of debt or obtain redress for personal injury unless a freeholder endorsed his writ. Many had become landless with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and their numbers were increasing with immigration from Ireland.

In 1840 the Rhode Island Suffrage Association was formed to address this increasingly unsatisfactory situation, and processions and popular meetings were held. Dorr took a leading part in the agitation. The legislature refused to remedy such grievances as were in its power, and the old charter did not provide any means of summoning a constitutional convention. A "People's Party", therefore, was formed, which held a convention, adopted a constitution, and submitted it to a vote of the people. There were approximately 14,000 ballots cast in favor of it, and less than 100 cast against it. Of those in favor, over 4,900 were qualified voters so that the proposed constitution was formally approved not only by the majority of the males over twenty-one but, it was alleged, even by a majority of the legal voters. The constitutional question was a delicate one, but the existing government refused to consider any of these acts as legal. It had become sufficiently frightened, however, to call a constitutional convention itself and in turn submit a constitution to the people. The government's constitution was defeated by the narrow margin of 676 votes out of 16,702. The new constitution, though not giving Dorr and his followers all they had asked, did give them most of the substance, so their rejection of it may be seen as a tactical error. Had they not defeated it they might have had a practical victory. Feelings, however, had become very bitter, and the Dorrites had already put their constitution into effect by electing an entire state ticket with Dorr as governor. In May 1842 there were two governments which had both held elections and were both claiming the allegiance of the people. The People's Party did not attempt to seize the state house or machinery of government. Both governors issued proclamations, and Governor Samuel Ward King of the "Law and Order" party appealed to Washington for Federal aid. Dorr then went to Washington to plead his cause before President John Tyler. There he received no encouragement, and he returned to Rhode Island. Meanwhile King had proclaimed martial law, offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of Dorr, and made wholesale imprisonments of the latter's followers under the "Algerine Law". Some minor clashes occurred between the Dorrites and the state troops, for example at Chepachet. Many of Dorr's followers deserted him and he fled the state on May 18, 1842, after a bungled attack on the Providence arsenal (which Dorr's father and younger brother, partisans of the "Law and Order" faction, were helping defend) led to the rebellion's disintegration. He returned briefly in June with a small band of New York volunteers, but hid in New Hampshire and Massachusetts when Governor King called out the state militia.

Returning to Providence in October 1843, hoping the more liberal constitution now adopted would safeguard his liberty, Dorr was nonetheless arrested. King and the old government sought their revenge. Dorr was tried for treason against Rhode Island at Newport, a conservative stronghold, before the Rhode Island Supreme Court and sentenced to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. He was committed on June 27, 1844. Public opinion finally made itself felt and in 1845 an Act of General Amnesty was passed and Dorr was released after serving twelve months of his term. In 1851 he was restored his civil rights, and in January 1854 the legislature passed an act annulling the verdict of the supreme court, but this the court decided was unconstitutional. Dorr's health had been broken, and after his release he lived in retirement until his death. His work, however, bore fruit, for the old order had yielded at last, and in 1843 a third constitution had been drawn up and accepted by the people providing universal white male suffrage with merely symbolic qualifications. Today, Rhode Island's state government includes Dorr in its list of governors.

Thomas Wilson Dorr. (n.d.). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wilson_Dorr.

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