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1859

The Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr

“His moral sensibilities led him into mistakes; he thought too well of the world, and his standard of ethics was fixed too high for practical purposes.”

Editor’s Note

Nineteenth-century America was practically crawling with amateur historians and popular writers adapting historical narratives to fit fictional motifs. While this diverse and far-flung crew of scholarly writers generally kept to the distant past (to the extent that the United States had one), a handful of important events inspired histories even while they were still on-going. One example was the Rhode Island Dorr War (1842) in which dueling state governments vied for political and legal supremacy. The movement’s leader, Thomas Wilson Dorr, claimed to be the true chief executive of Rhode Island, supported by the free suffrage of the state. His “Charterite” counterpart, Samuel Ward King, clung to his own governor’s office with the argument that an irregularly-formed constitutional convention and any irregularly-adopted state Constitution were as such unrecognized authorities in the state of Rhode Island. The state’s Charter was issued by King Charles II in 1663, did not provide for amendment or convention, proved unresponsive to demographic changes within the state, and by 1841 a sizeable majority actively opposed the document. Though Dorr’s suffragists hosted their own state convention, successfully submitted their own constitution to voters, and even displayed enough muster to force confrontations with state militia, Dorr’s rebellion suffered from chronic mismanagement and over-eagerness. The most significant factor in Dorr’s defeat, however, likely lay in his unrepentent libertarian radicalism. Dorr refused to limit his vision of universal, equal rights to the white male portion of the population. He encouraged women’s participation in politics and advocated for equal rights to African Americans (including the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia). Such positions made him anathema to conservatives North and South, killing any chances at sculpting a supportive national political coalition. Dorr’s warriors failed to take the state arsenals at Providence and Chepachet throughout the Summer of 1842, and his movement dissolved around him after the Charterites negotiated a new state constitution in the following months.

Though Dorr’s War was in many ways a farcical failure and a disastrous rout of constitutional, republican principles and practice, it inspired a generation of activists, writers, and thinkers. Radicals knew from the beginning of ‘the Rhode Island affair’ that they were engaging in history itself, and many recorded events as such while they unfolded. For nearly a decade after Dorr’s surrender, ‘The Rhode Island Question’ affected politics local, state, and national. Though barely remembered today, Thomas Wilson Dorr and his war for equal suffrage was one of the most important and potentially explosive events between the American founding and the Civil War. In the following selection, amateur historian Dan King writes an admiring, loving biography of the man who made it all happen.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

The Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr

By Dan King, 1859.

Chapter XIX.  Sketch of Mr. Dorr’s Life

It does not come within our province at this time to present the reader with a complete biography of Mr. Dorr, and, after the history which has already been given of that political controversy in which he so largely participated, every one must have become acquainted with the most prominent traits in his character. We have not intended unnecessarily to invade the sacred province of his private life, or to rush unbidden into the domestic circle; but we hold that the public character of every man is public property, and liable at all times to be examined and judged of. Our chief object in the present case is to place the motives and conduct of Mr. Dorr in their true light before the public, and to show that the cause in which he was engaged, and to which he sacrificed so much, was a just and righteous cause, and that, through all his reverses, he ever maintained his unflinching fidelity. We are aware that his memory needs no eulogium from us, and that the shafts of his enemies will finally crumble to dust beneath the immortal mound with which time will mark his history; yet, for the satisfaction of such of our readers as may be wholly unacquainted with his private life, it seems proper that we should give a brief sketch of his early history.

THOMAS WILSON DORR was born in the town of Providence and State of Rhode Island, November 5, 1805. His parents were among the most wealthy and respectable citizens, and their numerous connections comprised a very considerable portion of the prominent families of the place at that time. It does not belong to us to give a history of his early life; we will, therefore, pass it over with a single remark. The same nice sense of right and wrong, and the same scrupulous regard for truth, which marked the boyhood of George Washington, marked also the early character of Thomas Wilson Dorr; and the history of his life shows that he maintained that integrity with equal fidelity. His father being wealthy, no pains or expense was spared in his education. His preliminary studies were pursued at Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, and at the age of fourteen he entered Harvard College, where he graduated with much honor in 1823, being the second in his class.

Soon after his graduation he commenced the study of law, and spent two years in the city of New York under the tuition of Chancellor Kent and Vice Chancellor M’Coun. He afterwards returned to his native city, and made himself thoroughly acquainted with the laws of his own state, under the instruction of some of her ablest jurists. It is presumed that no young man, either before or since, ever came to the bar in Rhode Island better qualified, or with more flattering prospects. Irreproachable in morals, urbane in his manners, and mild and unassuming in all his intercourse, he deserved and received the respect and esteem of all with whom he associated; and it is said, that in his professional practice he ever maintained the same undeviating integrity which marked the character of his whole life. As an advocate he was not brilliant; yet his arguments were clear, forcible, and convincing. But we cannot give a history of his professional career, because it is with his public life that we are chiefly concerned: we wish to show that Mr. Dorr did not rashly and ignorantly rush into the political arena. Perhaps no man in Rhode Island had a more thorough or more polished education, or better understood the true principles of American jurisprudence. From 1834 to 1837 he represented the city of Providence in the General Assembly, and also at other times held many important offices; and if he had been less honest and more ambitious, he might easily have obtained the highest office in the gift of the people of that state. His family and its aristocratic connections placed him in the highest class, and posts of honor and power seemed to beckon him to their embrace. But when he looked abroad among mankind, and surveyed the great inequality which every where obtained,—when he beheld one class, by the mere accident of wealth or position, control and oppress those who were less fortunate, but not less worthy,—a spirit of philanthropy overcame all his ambitious aspirations, and he became devoted to the interests of the oppressed. He saw a large portion of the citizens of his own state actually outlawed and deprived of all their political rights by the arbitrary acts of unauthorized legislation. He resolved to forego his own individual interests, and exert himself in behalf of his disfranchised fellow-citizens. He made their cause his cause, and determined to stand or fall with it. We have given the reader the outlines of that eventful struggle which followed, and have shown that a large portion of that same oppressed people, for want of courage and fidelity, abandoned their own case, and became leagued with their oppressors. Cowardice and treachery united with the bayonet to crush the people and overthrow their leaders; but no human power was able to subdue Mr. Dorr. He had embarked in a righteous cause, and no reverses could damp his ardor or divert him from his purpose. His enemies did, indeed, deprive him of his liberty, and consign him to a felon’s cell; but in so doing they exhibited in him a most extraordinary example of magnanimous fidelity.

In his early life, Mr. Dorr manifested the most delicate sense of moral obligations; this governed all his subsequent life; he was ever the most precise and punctual of all men; there was nothing but truth in himself, and he expected to find it in all others; consequently he thought too well of the world, and confided far too much in professions and promises. To one possessed of a less degree of moral integrity the perfidy of others might have been less unexpected and less painful. But when his intercourse with the world had taught him its fickleness and its treachery,—when he saw those in whom he had reposed entire confidence become his enemies and persecutors, and came to reflect upon the injustice and infidelity with which he had been met, he became, in a measure, misanthropic; and although he still greeted his friends with as much warmth as ever, yet he became distrustful of all the world beside, and disinclined to mingle in society at large.

In all his domestic habits, Mr. Dorr was strictly and rigidly temperate, and his social intercourse was ever marked with those becoming courtesies and amenities which betoken a highly cultivated and refined taste, and before the political storm burst upon him he had few or no enemies, and it might at first appear somewhat surprising that one whose whole conduct was so respectful and courteous should so suddenly have so many and so bitter enemies; but this is readily accounted for when we consider that in political controversies there is always a large class of men who have no fixed principles of their own, but follow the lead of political weathercocks, as momentary interest or inclination may dictate. As soon as it was ascertained that the president of the United States would sustain the charter government with the national troops, hundreds upon hundreds, in quick succession, abandoned the cause of the people, and rushed boldly to the standard of law and order; and many, who but a short time before were among the most ardent supporters of the people’s constitution, now became suddenly incensed against Dorr and his party, and often prided themselves upon their political prowess, and vied with each other in acts of violence and injustice. After careful inquiry and mature deliberation, Mr. Dorr adopted the course which he conscience approved, and no dangers or difficulties could turn him aside from his purpose. When the weak and irresolute had fallen by the way, and his enemies had overcome and scattered abroad nearly all those on whom he had relied for support, he remained firm and unmoved. He stood erect and alone, and defied the storms like a majestic oak in the midst of a forest which had been prostrated by some wild tornado—and there his character will stand through all coming ages, and ever grow brighter as time rolls on.

It is not pretended that Mr. Dorr was free from the errors, imperfections, and infirmities common to all men. His moral sensibilities led him into mistakes; he thought too well of the world, and his standard of ethics was fixed too high for practical purposes; he chose to consider men as they ought to be rather than as they really are. He was no shrewd calculator, and had too little selfishness to deal with mankind to his own benefit; but instead of taking advantage of the errors and mistakes of other men, he nobly sought to benefit them by correcting their own mistakes. If he had been false to his own convictions and the interests of his fellow-men, wrapped up in his own selfishness, he might have cast himself upon the swelling tide of popularity, and rode fearlessly upon its proudest crests; fanned by the breezes of popular favor, he might have basked securely in its glowing sunshine, and mocked the complaints of the people. Sitting complacently upon an eminence, where fortune had placed him, he might have beheld, with a haughty indifference, all the petty storms that should rage around him. But nothing could induce him, sacrilegiously, to violate his own conscience; his aspirations were of a higher and nobler nature; he sought not to exalt himself, but to elevate the masses, to add his strength to their weakness, and restore the down-trodden to their just position in society. By uniting with the suffrage party he had nothing to gain for himself, but every thing to lose. Wealth, with its gaudy trappings, he despised; he listened reverently to the teachings of his own conscience, and looked with contempt upon empty and transitory popularity. He offered his best services to his fellow-men, not to gain any thing for himself, but to benefit them; and in his fall he shared the fate common to men of great mental powers and moral courage.

It is worthy of remark, that the same class of men who resisted Mr. Dorr and the people of Rhode Island, in 1842, supported the notorious Hartford Convention in 1812. His most bitter enemies belonged to that same old party, and in some instances were the very same individuals who once sat in that nocturnal conclave. And, indeed, we might go farther back, and show that men of the same political character that opposed Washington, Greene, Adams, and Jefferson, when the American people were struggling against the tyranny of Great Britain, opposed Mr. Dorr and the people of Rhode Island, when they were struggling against the tyranny of their own state, maintained under the pretext of a British charter.

The disease of which Mr. Dorr died was Chronic Pemphigus. This affection is not so common in this country as in some others, yet when it has made its appearance here, in adult subjects, we believe it has generally been induced or matured in confinement in damp or unwholesome situations.

Mr. Dorr was imprisoned, in all, twenty months. During his exile, and previous to his arrest in Providence, he was constantly and anxiously engaged in physical and intellectual exercises; and, again, during his long harassing trial at Newport, in consequence of the illness of his principal advocate, he was obliged to labor incessantly in conjunction with his remaining counsel, in the management of his defence. The whole case was a novel one. He was compelled to take his trial among strangers, before a court whose every word and act evinced hostility toward him, and the most implacable of his enemies stood around, thirsting for his blood—they knew not why. Under all these embarrassing and heart-rending circumstances, he labored day and night in conducting his defence, and reporting the trial; and as soon as that judicial farce was over, he was immediately thrust into a filthy dungeon, whose damp, sepulchral atmosphere was pregnant with death. As a stream suddenly dammed up soon recoils upon itself, so the confinement of Mr. Dorr shocked and deranged his system; and although he was somewhat relieved for a time, by being allowed to walk in the corridor, yet the bad air of his prison cell, and the want of cheerful exercise, continued to exert their morbid influence upon him during the whole period of his incarceration, and at the moment of his liberation it was evident that his protracted imprisonment had wrought fearful changes in his physical system. The muscles had lost their tone, the hepatic and chylopoietic viscera had become seriously deranged, and a Chronic Pemphigus supervened, under which he finally sank.

There are few individuals who can long endure solitary imprisonment. In general, it is equivalent to a lingering death. The stillness of the grave creeps over the isolated victim encased within cold stone walls, and life goes out by solitary extinction. Mr. Dorr’s bodily organization, his social and domestic habits, were illy adapted to such a condition, and if his confinement had been continued much longer he would doubtless have expired in prison. Although he was severely indisposed at the time of his liberation, yet his friends indulged the fond hope that when he came to be released from that dark and noisome cell, and allowed to breathe pure air and take proper exercise, he might regain his health; but they were disappointed. Notwithstanding every reasonable effort was made to improve his condition, he continued steadily to decline. By confinement his system had suffered irreparable morbid changes, and no human means could stay their progress. He bore his severe sufferings with his characteristic fortitude, and at last calmly sunk beneath the weight of his infirmities. He died in the city of Providence, Dec. 27, 1854, aged forty-nine years. Being of Episcopal parentage, he was early initiated as a member of that church, and he continued steadfast in that faith to his last hour. At his request, a few days before his death, the Rev. Mr. Waterman, rector of St. Stephen’s Church in Providence, gave him the sacrament. He died as he had lived, with an abiding confidence in the truths of Christianity.

Let those who are disposed to impugn his motives and asperse his character, first cleanse their own garments and cast the beams out of their own eyes, and then, if they can, they may proceed to point out the dark spots in his character. The selfish, unthinking multitude may not recognize in him any unusual degree of moral fidelity; it is by close examination and deep reflection that his character is best understood. As no one but an artist can judge so correctly of the beauty of a piece of sculpture or painting, so none but those possessed of high moral attainments themselves can fully appreciate the prominent traits in the character of Mr. Dorr. But when that time does come, as come it must, when the prejudice against him, with all its bitterness and hatred, shall have fully passed away, mankind will see in him one of the most extraordinary examples of virtuous fidelity which the history of the world affords.