The Dorr Rebellion of 1842 — perhaps one of the oddest moments in New England history — was Rhode Island’s very own, very small Civil War.
By Justin Shatwell
Mar 03 2020
A caricature representing Dorr’s troops from a pro-charter broadside.Photo Credit : Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
The Civil War was not the only time Americans fought against each other. In 1842, nineteen years before Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard fired his batteries at Fort Sumter, a very different army of very different men trained their cannons upon the armory in Providence, Rhode Island. This was the beginning of the Dorr Rebellion, Rhode Island’s very own, very small Civil War.
The Dorr Rebellion is one of the oddest moments in New England history, and one of the most difficult to categorize. Was it a war? It had all the trappings of one—drums and cannons, fiery speeches and rival governments. Armies took the field on both sides, but somehow they never managed to find each other. The rebellion lasted two months without a single battle being fought, and the whole affair resulted in a single death—an innocent civilian shot by mistake.
The trouble began with an argument over Rhode Island’s constitution. Namely, a growing number of citizens felt Rhode Island should actually have a constitution. You see, Rhode Islanders made a very odd choice following the Revolution. Instead of forming a new, democratic government, they opted to retain their old royal charter. Well into the 19th century, they continued to regard a royal decree from 1663 as their founding document and the fundamental basis of their state law.
As you might imagine, this monarchal charter enshrined some concepts that seemed increasingly un-American as time passed. At the core of the dispute was the requirement that a citizen had to own 40 pounds (then about $134) of property in order to vote. This hadn’t been a huge issue when the colony was sparsely populated farmland, but by the 1840s the state was becoming increasingly urban and industrial. The waves of Irish immigrants who had come to work in the factories lived in tenements, not on farms, and as a result they were locked out of the political system. It’s estimated that by the 1840s over 60 percent of the state’s white male population was forbidden to vote.
Calls for reform were repeatedly rebuffed by the charter government, so in October 1841 suffrage advocates, including many from the landed class, held their own constitutional convention and passed what came to be known as the People’s Constitution. They then organized a statewide referendum in which all white males of 21 years of age or older could vote. Surprisingly, it received a majority not just amongst the newly enfranchised but also amongst the landholders.
The only problem was that the old charter government hadn’t given their blessing for the referendum and refused to recognize its legitimacy. In April of 1842, two elections were held, one to elect a government under the People’s Constitution and one to elect a government under the charter. Rhode Island suddenly found itself with two competing governors, Thomas Wilson Dorr for the constitution and Samuel Ward King for the charter. Something had to give.
Supported by the courts, the charter government decided its best play was to just arrest the members of the rival government. After several of his lawmakers were snatched up, Dorr, who had previously been a rather lackluster lawyer and had no military training, rashly decided it was time to arm his supporters.
He organized around 300 men in Providence and began his campaign by robbing a small militia post of their two light cannons. Then, on May 17, his men surrounded the city’s arsenal. When its defenders refused to surrender, he ordered his cannon crews to fire. There was a great flash, but no balls flew from the muzzles. Each gun was tried again, to the same emasculating result. Either the guns were too old or the powder was wet. In any case, there was nothing left to do but retreat.
The army of the People’s Constitution disintegrated and Dorr briefly went into hiding in New York. He returned at the end of June and attempted to rally supporters in the small town of Chepachet, but less than 300 men answered his call. Hearing that a vastly larger charter government force was on its way, he disbanded his little army and again went into hiding. The charter forces, somewhat disappointed to find no enemy to fight, made a show of storming Dorr’s abandoned encampment on Acote’s Hill anyway and then rounded up some of the town’s citizens as prisoners of war.
Dorr was captured in 1843 and sentenced to life in prison for treason against Rhode Island, but he proved too popular to jail. While Rhode Islanders hadn’t been willing to go to war for him, they still believed in the cause he championed and made freeing “the People’s Governor” a cause célèbre. Dorr walked out of prison 1845 and was exonerated in 1854, shortly before his death.
Spurred by the Dorr Rebellion, Rhode Island finally passed a new constitution in November 1842, which removed the land-holding requirement for native-born citizens, but retained it for immigrants, leaving many of Dorr’s Irish supporters just as disenfranchised as they had been before. The property requirement would not be dropped entirely until 1888.
While the Dorr Rebellion may seem a little silly today, it’s a mistake to write it off as a farce. Not only did it force the issue of suffrage in Rhode Island, it also foreshadowed some of the fundamental questions that would later frame the Civil War. While slavery was not an issue here, the rebellion still forced people to debate the true meaning of the Declaration’s promise that all men are created equal. Did a government run by elites (in this case land-holding Yankees) have the right to keep an ethnic minority (Irish Catholics) in a state of second-class citizenry? And where does sovereignty lie? Do citizens have the right to dissolve their government and form a new order?
Whether he was a democratic visionary or a misguided revolutionary (or both), Thomas Wilson Dorr went to his grave unrepentant. He always maintained that his government was legal and that he had legitimately won the election of 1842. If you visit his headstone at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, you’ll find a small plaque there bearing the state seal with “People’s Constitution” inscribed beneath it. Above, in defiant script, it proclaims the grave’s owner to be Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Want to learn more? Visit the Dorr Rebellion Museum in Chepachet, Rhode Island.
What do you think of the Dorr Rebellion?
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.