Rhode Island Constitution, 1842 | State Archives Catalog
State Constitution (Original), 1842 (PDF Document, 8.26 MB)
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State Constitution (Published), 1842 (PDF Document, 2.23 MB)
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Industrialization and its corollary, urbanization, combined by the 1840s to produce an episode known as the Dorr Rebellion -- Rhode Island's crisis in constitutional government. The state's royal charter, then still in effect, gave disproportionate influence to the declining rural towns; it conferred almost unlimited power on the General Assembly; and it contained no procedure for its own amendment. State legislators, regardless of party, insisted upon retaining the old real estate requirement for voting and office holding, even though it had been abandoned in all other states. As Rhode Island grew more urbanized, this freehold qualification became more restrictive. By 1840 about 60 percent of the free adult males were disenfranchised.
Because earlier moderate efforts at change (beginning as early as 1817) had been virtually ignored by the General Assembly, the reformers of 1840-1843 decided to bypass the legislature and convene a People's Convention, equitably apportioned and chosen by an enlarged electorate. Thomas Wilson Dorr, a patrician attorney, assumed the leadership of the movement in late 1841 and became the principal draftsman of the progressive People's Constitution, which was ratified in a popular referendum in December 1841. Dorr was elected governor under this document in April 1842. The reformers were resisted by a "Law and Order'' coalition of Whigs and rural Democrats, who returned incumbent Governor Samuel Ward King to office in a separate election and then used force and intimidation to prevent the implementation of the People's Constitution. When Dorr responded in kind by unsuccessfully attempting to seize the state arsenal in Providence on May 18, 1842, most of his followers deserted the cause, and Dorr fled into exile. When he returned in late June to reconvene his so-called People's Legislature in Chepachet, a Law and Order army of twenty-five hundred marched to Glocester and sent the People's Governor into exile a second time.
The turmoil and popular agitation against the charter, which produced the Dorr Rebellion, forced the victors to consent to the drafting of a written state constitution. Authur May Mowry, the first major historian of the Dorr War, calls this instrument "liberal and well adapted to the needs of the state." but his appraisal neglects one important item: the 1842 constitution established a $134 freehold suffrage qualification for naturalized citizens, and this anti-Irish Catholic restriction, not removed until 1888, was the most blatant instance of political nativism found in any state constitution in the land. The stranglehold on the senate which the 1842 document gave to rural towns (there was one senator from each town regardless of its population) is also a fact of paramount importance and remained so at least until the "bloodless revolution" in 1935. Cumbersome amendment procedures made reform of the document a very difficult task.
This constitution, overwhelmingly ratified in November 1842 by a margin of 7,024 to 51, became effective in May 1843. Despite the margin of victory, the turnout was meager, for there were more than 23,000 adult male citizens in the state. That the opposition, in mute protest, refrained from voting explains in part the Constitution's apathetic reception and the lopsided vote.
A disillusioned Dorr returned from his New Hampshire refuge in October 1843 to surrender to local authorities. Immediately arrested and jailed until February 1844, Dorr was prosecuted for treason against the state. In a trial of less than two weeks, he was found guilty by a jury composed entirely of political opponents and sentenced to hard labor in solitary confinement for life. He served one year before Governor Charles Jackson -- elected on a "liberation" platform -- authorized his release. A Democratic General Assembly restored Dorr's civil and political rights in 1851 and in 1854 reversed the treason conviction. These gestures did little to cheer the vanquished reformer, whose spirit and health were broken. Disillusioned, he died in December 1854 in the midst of a local Know-Nothing campaign directed against immigrant Irish attempts to secure the vote.