1833-1849: The Dorr Rebellion

Thomas W Dorr

Howard Zinn's history of a movement in the United States against a political system which permitted the vote only to landowners. Drafting their own “People’s Convention” the rebels were let down by some of their own ideas, such as racism, and were put down by force.

Taking the case to the Supreme Court, the precedent was then set that the Court should not meddle in politics.

Around the time of the Anti-Renter movement in New York, there was excitement in Rhode Island over Dorr’s Rebellion. As Marvin Gettleman points out in The Dorr Rebellion, it was both a movement for electoral reform and an example of radical insurgency. It was prompted by the Rhode Island charter’s rule that only owners of land could vote.

As more people left the farm for the city, as immigrants came to work in the mills, the disfranchised grew. Seth Luther, self-educated carpenter in Providence and spokesman for working people, wrote in 1833 the “Address on the Right of Free Suffrage,” denouncing the monopoly of political power by “the mushroom lordlings, sprigs of nobility . . . small potato aristocrats” of Rhode Island. He urged non- cooperation with the government, refusing to pay taxes or to serve in the militia. Why, he asked, should twelve thousand working people in Rhode Island without the vote submit to five thousand who had land and could vote?

Thomas Dorr, a lawyer from a well-to-do family, became a leader of the suffrage movement. Working people formed the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, and in the Spring of 1841 thousands paraded in Providence carrying banners and signs for electoral reform. Going outside the legal system, they organised their own “People’s Convention” and drafted a new constitution without property qualifications for voting.

In early 1842, they invited votes on the constitution; fourteen thousand voted for it, including about five thousand with property—therefore a majority even of those legally entitled to vote by the charter. In April they held an unofficial election, in which Dorr ran unopposed for governor, and six thousand people voted for him. The governor of Rhode Island in the meantime got the promise of President John Tyler that in the case of rebellion federal troops would be sent. There was a clause in the U.S. Constitution to meet just that kind of situation, providing for federal intervention to quell local insurrections on request of a state government.

Ignoring this, on May 3, 1842, the Dorr forces held an inauguration with a great parade of artisans, shopkeepers, mechanics, and militia marching through Providence. The newly elected People’s Legislature was convened. Dorr led a fiasco of an attack on the state arsenal, his cannon misfiring. Dorr’s arrest was ordered by the regular governor, and he went into hiding outside the state, trying to raise military support.

Despite the protests of Dorr and a few others, the “People’s Constitution” kept the word “white” in its clause designating voters. Angry Rhode Island blacks now joined the militia units of the Law and Order coalition, which promised that a new constitutional convention would give them the right to vote.

When Dorr returned to Rhode Island, he found several hundred of his followers, mostly working people, willing to fight for the People’s Constitution, but there were thousands in the regular militia on the side of the state. The rebellion disintegrated and Dorr again fled Rhode Island.

Martial law was declared. One rebel soldier, captured, was blind-folded and put before a firing squad, which fired with blank bullets. A hundred other militia were taken prisoner. One of them described their being bound by ropes into platoons of eight, marched on foot 16 miles to Providence, “threatened and pricked by the bayonet if we lagged from fatigue, the rope severely chafing our arms; the skin off mine… no water till we reached Greenville… no food until the next day… and, after being exhibited, were put into the State prison.”

A new constitution offered some reform. It still gave overrepresentation to the rural areas, limited the vote to property owners or those who paid a one-dollar poll tax, and would let naturalised citizens vote only if they had $134 in real estate. In the elections of early 1843, the Law and Order group, opposed by former Dorrites, used intimidation of state militia, of employees by employers, of tenants by landlords, to get out their vote. It lost in the industrial towns, but got the vote of the agrarian areas, and won all major offices.

Dorr returned to Rhode Island in the fall of 1843. He was arrested on the streets of Providence and tried for treason. The jury, instructed by the judge to ignore all political arguments and consider only whether Dorr had committed certain overt acts (which he never denied committing), found him guilty, whereupon the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment at hard labour. He spent twenty months in jail, and then a newly elected Law and Order governor, anxious to end Dorr’s martyrdom, pardoned him.

Armed force had failed, the ballot had failed, the courts had taken the side of the conservatives. The Dorr movement now went to the U.S. Supreme Court, via a trespass suit by Martin Luther against Law and Order militiamen, charging that the People’s Government was the legitimate government in Rhode Island in 1842. Daniel Webster argued against the Dorrites. If people could claim a constitutional right to overthrow an existing government, Webster said, there would be no more law and no more government; there would be anarchy.

In its decision, the Supreme Court established (Luther v. Bordn, 1849) a long-lasting doctrine: it would not interfere in certain “political” questions, to be left to executive and legislature. The decision reinforced the essentially conservative nature of the Supreme Court: that on critical issues— war and revolution—it would defer to the President and Congress.