Nearly seventy years after the Declaration of Independence, Rhode Island was still governed by the English Royal Charter. Suffrage rights guaranteed under the charter had not changed to any great extent from the time the document was received in 1663. By 1841, only white males aged 21 years and older possessing $134.00 in real estate were allowed the opportunity to cast a vote in Rhode Island. As the population became more diverse and expanded during the Industrial Revolution, thousands of factory workers and immigrants and found themselves having no voice in the government that controlled their lives. Thomas Wilson Dorr, a prominent lawyer, politician and reformer led a popular movement to expand the elective franchise regardless of property qualifications. Suffrage meetings held throughout the state in the spring & summer of 1841, led Dorr and his supporters to convene a convention and draft a new “People’s Constitution.” The newly ratified document guaranteed suffrage rights to all white male citizens of the United States who had resided in the State at least one year. The word “white” had been purposely included in the article on suffrage by the insistence of the majority of convention delegates to Dorr’s objection. Adjourning in January, 1842 elections were subsequently held under the authority of the ratified constitution and a new slate of general officers were chosen including Dorr as governor.
The ensuing confrontation between the sitting charter government led by Governor Samuel Ward King which viewed the Dorr government as illegal brought Rhode Island to a state of insurrection by the summer of 1842. With two competing powers structures vying for control of the state Governor King and his “Law and Order” supporters went so far as to appeal to President Tyler to intervene and resolve the issue. Although the president supported the King government he declined to offer federal troops. Determined to uphold he people's government Dorr and a small army of supporters sought to seize control by force. On May 17, 1842, an attack was led on the state arsenal in Providence. Armed with two old Revolutionary War cannons Dorr arrived to discover the building fortified by 200 men loyal to the charter government, including several of Dorr’s own relatives. When demands for surrender were refused Dorr ordered the cannons fired in the name of the new People's government. The attempted volley, however, ended in a misfire and in the ensuing chaos, Dorr and some supporters fled to Glocester, Rhode Island.
Soon afterward Governor King declared martial law throughout the state and ordered the state militia to arrest Dorr and those loyal to him. On June 28, the militia stormed the Dorrite fortifications which had been established on Acote's Hill, in Chepachet and took over 100 prisoners. Several hundred more supporters were subsequently rounded up throughout the state. Although Dorr managed to escape to Connecticut he was indicted for treason by a grand jury. When he eventually returned to Rhode Island in October, 1843, he was immediately arrested and imprisoned under a sentence of life. However, under an act of general amnesty, Dorr was released from the State prison on June 27, 1845 after having served only twenty-four months.
Although the Dorr movement failed in its attempt to expand suffrage it did manage to bring the issue to forefront and resulted in the General Assembly finally replacing the Royal Charter with a written constitution for Rhode Island (in effect in May 2, 1843). Although mirroring the document it replaced and essentially maintaining the status quo with respect to suffrage the enacted constitution did remove race as a qualifier by removing the world “white” from the language.
See also:Dorr, Thomas Wilson, 1805-1854