Dorr Rebellion

The Dorr Rebellion was a short-lived armed insurrection in Rhode Island in 1841 and 1842, led by Thomas Wilson Dorr who was agitating for changes to the state's electoral system.


Under Rhode Island's charter, originally received in 1663, only landowners could vote. At the time, when most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers, this was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s landed property worth at least $134 was required in order to vote. However, as the industrial revolution reached North America and people moved into the cities, it created large numbers of people who could not vote. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote (as were all non-whites and women). Many were recent Irish Catholic immigrants.

Some argued that an electorate made up of only 40% of the white males of the state was un-republican and violated the United States Constitution's Guarantee Clause, Art. IV, Sec. 4 ("The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government....").

Prior to the 1840s, several attempts were made to replace the colonial charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights, but all failed. The Charter lacked a procedure for amendment. The Rhode Island General Assembly had consistently failed to liberalize the constitution by extending voting rights, enacting a bill of rights, or reapportioning the legislature. By 1841, Rhode Island was almost the only state without universal suffrage for white males.

The Rebellion

In 1841, suffrage supporters, led by Dorr, gave up on attempts to change the system from within. In October, they held an extralegal People's Convention and drafted a new constitution that granted the vote to all white males with one year's residence. At the same time, the state's General Assembly formed a rival convention and drafted the Freemen's Constitution, making some concessions to democratic demands.

The two constitutions were voted on late in the year, with the Freemen's Constitution being defeated in the legislature, largely by Dorr supporters, while the People's Convention version was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum in December. Although much of the support for the People's Convention constitution was from the newly-eligible voters, Dorr claimed that a majority of those eligible under the old constitution had also supported it, making it legal.

In early 1842, both groups organized elections of their own, leading to the elections of both Dorr and Samuel Ward King as Governor of Rhode Island in April. King showed no signs of introducing the new constitution, and when matters came to a head he declared martial law. On May 4, the state legislature requested the dispatch of federal troops to suppress the 'lawless assemblages.' President John Tyler sent an observer, then decided not to send soldiers, because "the danger of domestic violence is hourly diminishing." Nevertheless Tyler, citing the U.S. Constitution, added that

If resistance is made to the execution of the laws of Rhode-Island, by such force as the civil peace shall be unable to overcome, it will be the duty of this Government to enforce the constitutional guarantee--a guarantee given and adopted mutually by all the original States.

Most of the state militiamen were Irishmen newly enfranchised by the referendum and supported Dorr. The "Dorrites" led an unsuccessful attack against the arsenal in Providence on May 19, 1842. Defenders of the arsenal on the "Charterite" (those who supported the original charter) side included Dorr's father, Sullivan Dorr, and his uncle, Crawford Allen. At the time, these men owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket. After his defeat, Thomas Dorr and his supporters retreated to Chepachet where they hoped to reconvene the People's Convention.

Charterite forces were sent to Woonsocket to defend the village and to cut off the retreat of the Dorrite forces. The Charterites fortified a house in preparation for an attack, but it never came and the Dorr Rebellion simply fell apart shortly thereafter. Governor King issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest with a reward of $5000. Dorr fled the state.

The Charterites, finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause, called another convention. In September 1842, a session of the Rhode Island General Assembly met at Newport, Rhode Island and framed a new state constitution, which was ratified by the old limited electorate, proclaimed by Governor King on January 23, 1843, and took effect in May. The new constitution greatly liberalized voting requirements by extending suffrage to any free white man who could pay a poll tax of $1, and was accepted by both parties.

In Luther v. Borden (1849), the Supreme Court of the United States sidestepped the question of which state government was legitimate, finding it to be a political question best left to the other branches of the federal government.

Dorr's fate

Dorr returned later in 1843, was found guilty of treason against the state, and sentenced in 1844 to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned, and in 1845 Dorr, his health now broken, was released. He was restored to his civil rights in 1851, and in 1854 the court judgment against him was set aside. He died later that year.


Historians have long debated the meaning or nature of the rebellion. Mowry (1901) denounced it, while Gittelman (1973) hailed it as an early working class attempt to overthrow an elitist government. Dennison (1976) saw it as a legitimate expression of Republicanism in the United States. However, he concluded that politics changed little for Rhode Islanders after 1842 because the same groups ruled the state. However, in 1854, the state supreme court decided, "The union of all the powers of government in the same hands is but the definition of despotism." Thus, the same court that had convicted Dorr for treason against the charter in 1844 ruled ten years later that the charter had improperly authorized a despotic, nonrepublican, and un-American form of government (Dennison, p. 196).


  • Peter J. Coleman, The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790-1860 (1963), covers economic issues
  • George M. Dennison; The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831-1861. University of Kentucky Press. 1976
  • Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849 (1973), pro-Dorr
  • Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, Might and Right by a Rhode Islander (1844), based on information supplied by Dorr
  • Arthur May Mowry. The Dorr War; or, The Constitutional Struggle in Rhode Island (1901; reprinted 1970), hostile to Dorr
  • Chilton Williamson. American Suffrage: From Property to Democracy, 1760-1860 (1960),

See also

External links

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