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essays

Aug 3, 1842

“Let Usurpers Tremble:” The Unrepublican Anomaly

“They…are sleeping [on] a volcano…A spirit now…ready to be awakened, will take sweet vengeance on the enormities it has suffered.”

Editor’s Introduction

In the Summer of 1842, the Rhode Island “Dorr War” threatened to erupt into civil war throughout New England, from New Hampshire to Philadelphia.  In question was the status of the state government.  As of August 3, when Levi Slamm’s Daily Plebeian published the articles below, Rhode Islanders possessed two governments:  one claiming legitimacy through the royal charter of 1662, the other claiming its rights under the recently (though irregularly) approved “People’s Constitution.”  Thomas W. Dorr (“The People’s Governor”) and his suffragist allies had long sought to liberalize the state government, especially by eliminating the landholding requirement for voting and reapportioning state representation.  In search of a more democratic, republican government, the “Dorrites” spontaneously formed a “People’s Convention” (1841), drafted the “People’s Constitution,” and successfully submitted the documents to voters for ratification.  Voters overwhelmingly embraced the new government, while the old administration refused to give way.  In the ensuing standoff, suffragist forces embarrassingly lost several military contests and failed to organize a national political coalition in their favor.  By August 1842, therefore, Rhode Island suffragists suffered at the hands of a reactionary regime, their movement floundering and their personal safety in jeopardy. 

In this context, Frances Whipple (“A Rhode Islander”) wrote to New York newspaper editor Levi D. Slamm on the distressing affair and what many—including Whipple—saw blossoming into a wide-reaching revolutionary struggle.  Though the suffrage cause failed for the moment, repressive reaction from the Charter regime could only provoke deeper and wider responses from the ranks of average Americans.  In his own commentaries on the Rhode Island affair, Slamm echoed Whipple’s sentiments, arguing that Rhode Island represented a rare “anomaly” in the history of republican government.  The thrust of American history, he believed, was undeniably in favor of expanding Liberty.  As the suffragist collapse in Rhode Island demonstrated, however, those who would protect and expand the scope of freedom must remain ever vigilant in pursuit of their goals.  No encroachments of Power on the Liberties of the people can be tolerated, however anomalous and small they may appear.

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

New York Daily Plebeian, 1 No. 32, 3 August 1842

“From a Rhode Islander”

Mr. Editor—I perceive the truth-loving Journal of Providence belabors you hard for espousing the cause of the suffrage party of Rhode Island, now crushed to the earth by mere brute force; and heaps upon you all manner of wicked intentions for the freedom and manliness with which you speak.  That is not wonderful for the organ which proclaims “martial law,” to prevent the liberty of speech, which arrests and imprisons men for expressing an opinion, or casting a vote; and which, in short, presents usurpations and despotism in its worst and most daring form.  In no period of the French Revolution did Marat or Robespierre more directly violate the most sacred rights of man and the institutions of France, than have the Chartists in Rhode Island those of American Republicanism.  They have arrested, imprisoned, slain innocent men; have broken open private dwellings, insulted and abused women and children, destroyed private property, broken down the “freedom of the press,” forbidden the “freedom of speech,” and prevented it by armed informers and eavesdroppers, and done just what was to be expected of desperate men, who know no law but their own creation, obey no power but their own ambition, and seek no object but party and selfish triumph.

You, Mr. Editor, having courage to speak in behalf of an injured, insulted, and down-trodden people, must expect to receive the curse of such beings.  But condemnation from such a source is the highest praise.  If they should praise you, you might forthwith hang yourself, to shun deeper disgrace.

I do not wonder that, with your democratic principles, you speak in favor of the right cause of the Suffrage party.  I rather wonder you do not say more, for a vital principle is involved in that question, which lies at the foundation of our Government, and of Republicanism itself.  I wonder that every free press does not speak out in thunder-tones against such an open violation of human rights by an armed aristocracy.  Nay, I wonder even that every real friend of republican liberty does not arm himself and fly to the rescue of brother freemen suffering in our own land—the boasted land of the free.  Fifty men from your city armed themselves and came to Providence to put down the rights of freemen.  Governor Davis lent 500 stand of arms to shoot down men who were willing to submit to a form of government guaranteed to them by the Federal Constitution.  But that is all nothing.  Oh, no; for the rich, the aristocracy, the Whigs, approve of that.  But let the Plebeian say a word in favor of the poor and derided people, and it is “incendiary,” and ought to be silenced!  You would be, if you were in Rhode Island.

Some people lay the “flattering unction to their souls,” that all is over, and that they can keep up the “martial law” until such men are chosen as will make a good Constitution.  But they know better.  They feel that they are sleeping on the top of a volcano.  They hope to chain it down.  They have just doubled their patrol, and are daily brushing their arms.  Call that safely?  They can have none by oppression.  A spirit now slumbering, but just ready to be awakened, will take sweet vengeance on the enormities it has suffered.  Clergymen may thank God “by law,” and “Hard Ciderites” sing its requiem; but it “is not dead; but sleepeth.”  It will arise in giant strength, and hurl back its fetters, and wind aristocracy in the grave-clothes prepared for itself.  Remember Haman’s gallows.  A thousand men driven from the State will not always keep away.  It is now understood that Tyler will not intermeddle; so the very cause of their overthrow is taken away, and Suffrage men are beginning to feel the freedom they once felt, and to deem it worth some blood.  Yes, sir, the Journal may yet have cause to thank you for the admonitions you have given them betimes.  The Chartists may as well be picking up their duds, and preparing to make their peace with the great ruling power, the “will of the People.”  I can assure them it is coming.  The Chronicle, a mere shade from the Journal office, may boast of the strong and ready force of the Royalists, but it is vain.  They have taken, by force, the guns of the people, but they cannot take the armor of right.  Those who fight in a right cause are not unaided.  Some helping France, with a becoming fellow-feeling, will lend her aid to justice and human right.  Let usurpers tremble.

Yours, in the love of freedom and right,

A Rhode Islander.

 

“An Unrepublican Anomaly”

By Levi D. Slamm

The condition of affairs in Rhode Island is anomalous in the history of republican government.  A State, ostensibly one of our confederacy, in fact represented in both branches of our National Legislature under a Constitution which assumes to establish justice, provide for the common defence, and to secure the blessings of liberty, is at this moment a military despotism of the worst description, where neither persons nor property, youth nor age, is respected, and where the freedom of speech and of the press are trampled under foot with entire impunity. There is no possible excuse or apology for this state of things, which can satisfy the PEOPLE of the country.  We are aware that a government, such as that under which the people of Rhode Island have tamely and ignobly live so long, must, at this time, when the light of political knowledge is reflected into every village and hamlet in the land, have recourse to violent means to maintain its ascendency.  We are told as an excuse for the continuance of martial law, the encouragement of spies, informers and false witnesses; the persecution of the free suffrage people; the insults which are heaped upon them; the intrusions which are daily made into the houses of peaceable, honest and well meaning citizens; the imprisonment of husbands and brothers; and other outrages committed, not only upon residents, but upon citizens of other states, who may happen to sojourn there temporarily on business, that vile plots and conspiracies are on foot to overrun the state, burn down the dwellings, pillage the property, and ravish the women!  These reports are base and willful fabrications.  FEAR, the great principle of all despotisms, leads to the promulgation of these vile slanders.  It is an old trick of despotism, which the masses are fully competent to comprehend.  “Under Tiberius Caesar,” so we are informed by Seneca, “the rage of accusing of informing was so common as to harass the peaceful citizens more than a civil war.  The words of drunken men, and the unguarded joke of the thoughtless, were taken down and handed to the Emperor.”  And there have been periods in the history of England, when spies, informers, false-witnesses, and pretended plots and conspiracies were deemed lawful and useful expedients by the powers that were, to crush and trample upon the people.  History will have recorded on its pages the same tyranny, the same despicable means, to crush the people of republican Rhode Island.  It is not unfair to infer the existence of the same principles, the same motives, from a similarity of conduct.  Anomalous, as it may seem, foul and disgraceful as it is, we make the inference.

Let not the powers that be in Rhode Island urge State necessity in defence of their odious and heart-rending despotism.  Let them not say that those we have seen here, exiled from their native soil, intelligent, honest, industrious American citizens, must remain in exile as a matter of State necessity; that their appearance among their friends and relations would be hazardous to the peace of the State.  We deny the existence of any such necessity.  All will be peace and quiet, if justice, simple justice, republican justice, be done them.  It is not a characteristic of the American people to be discontented, traitorous, or seditious.  But they will complain, they have a right to complain, and they would be cravens and cowards would they not ACT, when they see themselves despoiled of those privileges which they of right should exercise by authority of God and the Constitution.  With what reason can the dominant party in Rhode Island (we mean the armed and despotic minority) expect peace, when there is no peace, order when there is no order, law when there is no law?  What! Do they hope that American citizens, when nothing is extended to them but villainous oppression, will yield to it a contemptible submission?  Call they it law, and order, and tranquility, when the laws are iniquitously unequal, when persecution and insult must be submitted to without the privilege of complaint?  The people of Rhode Island have already submitted too long, disgracefully submitted, to such law and order.  We look upon it as the very bane and curse of humanity, and one entirely and emphatically anomalous to the character and institutions of the people of this country, antagonist to the spirit of the age in which we live, and disgraceful to those who hope to perpetuate it.  We may speak warmly, but we fell what we speak when we say, in comparison to such law, and order, and tranquility as the people there now live under, we would gladly welcome all the feuds, animosities, and revolutions which the aristocracy falsely attribute to a state of political equality.  These are the symptoms of life and robust health, while the inanimation, the repose, the quiet resulting from such a government as that now in existence in Rhode Island, is the deadness of a palsy.  Who would not prefer life with all its activity and enterprise, to the silence of the grave and the stillness of desolation?

When is this unrepublican anomaly to be regulated?  Can nothing be said or done, to advise or assist the down trodden and oppressed, as are the people of Rhode Island?  We have extended our sympathies to the Greeks, the Poles, the Canadians, the persecuted of Old Ireland, and can we look on with calmness, and witness the operation of a military despotism within our own territory, almost at our very door?  Cannot the enquiry be made to Congress, whether a military despotism be the Republican government which the United States are bound to guarantee to the citizens of each State of the Confederacy?  Timid and nerveless as the majority of the Suffrage party are generally regarded, cannot they be warmed up to assemble peaceably, and demand with erect front, those rights which have been so long withheld from them?  Twelve thousand voted for the People’s Constitution—where are they?  All quailing under the rod of the tyrant and the task master!  It cannot be so.  Let them unite, organize, concentrate, and in defiance of the martial law, demand its immediate abrogation.  When this is done, let them send their own delegates to the coming convention, notwithstanding the inequality of representation and the injustice of the qualifications necessary to vote under the call.  Twelve thousand men, armed with right, cannot be put down—twelve thousand men cannot be imprisoned, the Bastiles of Rhode Island are not sufficiently capacious to hold them.  We must not be considered as intruding our advice in this matter.  The principle the people there have attempted to establish, is an universal principle.  We have the same interest in its establishment, that they have.  Its failure there would tend to its subversion, and its success be the means of accelerating, its progress beyond the bounds of our territory to the present and the future benefit of mankind.

* * *

Since writing the above we have been informed that it is in contemplation to prepare an address to the people of the United States to emanate from a committee consisting of gentlemen of Philadelphia, this city and Boston.  We are glad that this movement is suggested, and we trust that the address will contain a correct history of the wrongs which have been perpetrated upon the people of Rhode Island by the exclusive friends of “law and order.”  If all the facts are collected and arranged, the memories of the Kings and Whipples and Fenners, and such like, will be execrated by every human being to whom God has given a heart to feel, and a tongue to utter.