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On May 19, 1842, Thomas W. Dorr dressed up like Napoleon and ordered his makeshift little army to storm the Providence state arsenal.

Last week on Liberty Chronicles, we left off with May 19, 1842, when Thomas W. Dorr—The People’s Governor of Rhode Island, dressed up like Napoleon and carrying a sword—ordered his makeshift little army to storm the Providence state arsenal.. Most of Dorr’s warriors, though, were young men trying to impress girls in their neighborhoods. It was the furthest thing imaginable from a professional, committed army, and when met with even slight resistance, Dorr’s lines broke and his army scattered.

Further Readings/​References:

Chaput, Erik. The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press. 2013.

Conley, Patrick T. Democracy in Decline: Rhode Island’s Constitutional Development, 1776–1841. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society. 1977.

Dennison, George M. The Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831–1861. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press. 1976.

Gettleman, Marvin. The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism: 1833–1849. New York: Random House. 1973.

Grimstead, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.

Music by Kai Engel


Anthony Comegna: Last week on Liberty Chronicles, we left off with May 19, 1842 when Thomas W. Dorr, the people’s governor of Rhode Island, dressed up like Napoleon and carrying a sword, ordered his makeshift little army to storm the Providence state arsenal. His own father and brother were inside aiming canons back at Dorr’s men.
Rhode Island was split between two governments: one claimed authority under the charter [00:00:30] granted by King Charles the Second in 1663 which became the state constitution after the revolutionary war, the other government claimed the people had a right to reform states at will. Since a majority of them voted for what was called the People’s Constitution in 1841, it was officially the new legitimate state government. Many of the Dorrites gathered to assault the arsenal had been agitating for constitutional reform for over a decade. Others were New Yorkers, [00:01:00] radicals hoping to advance their own philosophies using Rhode Island as a test case. Most of Dorr’s warriors though were young men trying to impress girls in their neighborhoods. It was the furthest thing imaginable from a professional, committed army. When met with even slight resistance, Dorr’s lines broke and his army scattered.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism. [00:01:30] org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
The assault failed and Dorr’s men fled to Woonsocket in Northern Rhode Island to rebuild their numbers and morale. For months, Dorr had been keeping up correspondence with people from New England, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Most of them promised him moral or financial support, but many guaranteed they would join his army either [00:02:00] personally in listing or raising volunteer units with hundreds of citizen soldiers. A letter from Louis Lapham from Fall River, Massachusetts promised Dorr 300 recruits if the government started arresting Suffragists.

Speaker 2: Louis Lapham to Thomas W. Dorr, April 16, 1842.
My Dear Sir,
I hope you will not consider these few lines from me as an intrusion. I was born and brought up in Rhode Island, and consequently feel a deep [00:02:30] interest in the success of her people in the cause of Constitutional freedom. In the name of Liberty and Patriotism stand firm to the cause you have so nobly espoused and the people will triumphantly sustain both the cause and its advocates.
If the “Old Charter” party should be so insane as to attempt to carry the “Algerine law” into operation, put me down as a volunteer hunter in favor of the People’s Constitution, ready at 30 minutes warning to emigrate to my native state [00:03:00] with 300 recruits.
Come what may, my life is at the service of my brethren in Rhode Island at any time they may desire assistance to overthrow the British Charter of King Charles the Second.
I regretted at the time of the formation of the People’s Constitution that it was not more liberal in some of its provisions and would not then have supported it, because it did not secure to colored people the same rights that it does to others. But when the landholders formed a [00:03:30] Constitution still less liberal than the People’s in every other particular, and absolutely and irretrievably shut the door against ever admitting the colored man to vote, it convinced me at once, that the Suffrage Party had probably put that question in the most liberal shape that circumstances would at the time render successful.
Trusting that a knowledge of the sympathy felt in this place for the establishment of the People’s Constitution as the supreme law of the land of Roger Williams, could do [00:04:00] no harm, if it does no good. I have ventured so far to trespass upon your valuable time as to communicate the fact and hope if a physical contest should unhappily take place, you will feel no delicacy in advising me of the want of such assistance as may be in the power of many here to give; and which will be readily and voluntarily rendered.
Yours Respectfully,
Louis Lapham

Anthony Comegna: During the spring of 1842, Dorr and several agents in Washington lobbied the country’s [00:04:30] top Democrats to come to Rhode Island’s aid. Immediately after the Providence arsenal assault failed, Dorr personally sailed to Washington to plead his case before returning to his men at Woonsocket. He quickly fired off a series of letters explaining that the Tyler administration saw the Suffragist call for universal equal rights as a prelude to the abolition of slavery and a series of Black governments in Southern states. If Dorrite principles were accepted, South Carolina and Mississippi [00:05:00] would become African American republics, perhaps Alabama, Georgia and more. The Tyler people saw in Dorrism a tremendous abolition plot. And despite Dorr’s hopeful tone and movements, a national coalition was never a real possibility.

Speaker 2: Thomas Wilson Dorr to Aaron White, Esquire. May 12, 1842.
I would have written to you before but I have been literally upon a flying [00:05:30] visit having traveled to and from Washington with the expedition of the mail. I spent two days there and my time was wholly occupied with the business of my mission. I have seen many of our most active friends in Congress and they urge us to go on with one voice. In fact, the only fear expressed has been that our strength might not hold out and that we should give up to our opponents. We have the moral and intellectual weight of Congress on our side and perhaps the numerical weight after a full and fair [00:06:00] discussion. But this I will not positively assert.
You will have seen that President Tyler does not consider us to have committed any act of insurrection. The fact is the Cabinet were divided upon the point of using force against Rhode Island and it became necessary to say that they would by and by when the people had done their utmost. The movements of the democracy here and in other places and the general expression of public sentiment in our favor have alarmed the administration with the fear [00:06:30] of an American war of the people against the government and they begin to pause.
Mr. Webster has invited a meeting on men of both parties here tomorrow to consult on our controversy and bring it to a close if possible. Mr. W stated that he wished me to understand that he was in favor of peace. The president is apparently a very good natured, weak man unequal to his situation and having his mind made up for him by others. Anyone might suppose [00:07:00] from conversing with him that he was a strong people’s man. He has great confidence in the liberality of the Algerine assembly who he believes are disposed to make every concession to the people. Webster and he take the ground that the people of this country can make no changes of the government without the forms prescribed in the constitution. Where there is no written constitution without the permission of the legislature, they are both Tories of the rankest sort.
Our hopes must rely on the aid and [00:07:30] strength of the people of the States to whom I am happy to say we shall not look in vain. I hope before I leave the city to obtain assurances of 1,000 volunteers to act in case a government’s soldier shall set his foot on the soil to put down the people. I have been received everywhere with a truly cordial spirit. There is a real heart and soul in democracy and never were they more truly manifested than now. I shall return to Providence as soon as possible and forthwith call [00:08:00] on the military to protect me and others from my arrest under the Algerine Law. As soon as I arrive, I hope to see you and communicate many particulars which cannot be included in the limits of a letter.
I am truly and sincerely your friend,
T.W. Dorr
Thomas Wilson Dorr to Walter S. Burges, Esquire, May 12, 1842.
The Democrats in Congress and some of the Whigs are with us. Some [00:08:30] of the Southern members, for instance, Cuthbert of the Senate are with the people of Rhode Island but not with all people in asserting a principle which might be construed to take in Southern Blacks and to aid the Abolitionists. The only fear at Washington is that we may not carry our movement through, a fear, which in some members, amounts to distrust. The determination of the people, not to see us put down by the general government, has inspired the politicians with doubt and misgivings.
The [00:09:00] Algerine commissioners have succeeded in convincing the president of the extremely liberal views of the old charter party and he speaks of the certainty of their doing everything right. He has too much confidence in the old charter men because they have had the boldness to persuade him that they are the Tyler Party in Rhode Island. Nothing can alter him now but the operation of public opinion to which he is very sensitive, deeming himself a popular man. This process is now going on well. I [00:09:30] am with most friendly regard.
Yours truly,
T.W. Dorr

Anthony Comegna: There was little real hope for a national political coalition to enforce the people’s constitution, but the Dorr War did fuel an outpouring of populist, radical republicanism throughout the Northern states. In Philadelphia and New York, Connecticut and Boston, crowds and citizen committees voiced their support for Dorrism.
Colonel William Mitchell in Boston wrote to Dorr that any federal force would stir [00:10:00] thousands of working men to his cause. Daniel Jackson wrote from New York that 8,000 people attended a Dorrite meeting at city hall on May 14th. Rhode Island’s governor under the charter, Samuel Ward King, requested that nearby governors capture and extradite Dorr if possible. But his popular support was so strong that the crowds simply would not allow authorities to arrest him. New York’s Governor William Seward, a Whig, was happy to comply with King’s request. But the Democratic [00:10:30] governors of Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts all refused. Whatever might happen in Washington, people at the state and local level continued to draw the lines of battle.
Suffragist J. S. Harris of Providence reported to Door on the 12th of June that people were holding meetings everywhere across the New England countryside waiting to fight out a social revolution, a full on class war to exterminate the elements of feudalism still remaining in American life. He called [00:11:00] for one great struggle on the part of the whole American people to once and for all establish the absolute right to revolution.
On the 27th of June, 1842, the Philadelphia North American reported that Rhode Islanders were still for war. Proof positive, the 500 men and six cannon Dorr was assembling at Chepachet, Rhode Island.
Major [Auguste Devosak 00:11:25] who had fought with Jackson at New Orleans and now regularly make political [00:11:30] speeches for Democrats, had apparently taken command of the Dorr army. The atmosphere was extremely tense and Governor King put the state militia on guard. Believing they were about to confront an army made up of thousands of New Yorkers and invading New English, the state militia marched up Acotes Hill in Chepachet with an important measure of determination. At the first signs of an actual fight, Dorr’s army crumbled and fled.
After the dust settled and Dorr’s warriors were able to explain [00:12:00] themselves, they started by noting that women really pushed them into the ranks, not some grand commitment to principle. Samuel Green stated that he went into the cause because some ladies were going, thought that there was no danger where the ladies were, heard many of them were ready to fight for Dorr.
One William F. Mason, a man of only 18 years, confessed to reporters that he should not have gone to Chepachet had not the women persuaded me to do so. There was one in particular I did not dare refuse. She [00:12:30] was my sweetheart, threatened to give me the mitten if I did not go.
Clark Smith from Albion Village in Lincoln stated that most of the women in our village are in favor of Dorr. Some talked of putting on pantaloons and going to his aid. He said, “The women had a good deal of influence with the men, kept up a continual talking, should pity the man who remained at home among them, should rather remain in prison than to contend with them myself.” Perhaps accounting for many of the desertions at Chepachet, Clark Smith [00:13:00] said he went to the camp to make a show, made up horse show. In case of actual battle, meant to sneak off myself.
Almond Smith, Clark’s 18‐​year‐​old son and, yes, his name was Almond, Almond Smith said he went to Chepachet, was advised to go by Sarah and the rest of the girls, hated to hang back for fear they would have laughed at me. Almond said he set out for Chepachet expecting to be made a hero of. He was, instead, made a prisoner of. Search for glory, couldn’t find [00:13:30] any. He concluded, “I don’t think I should have plucked up and gone to the camp had it not been for the gals. They made me feel gritty.”
Clearly the military path through reform was a dead letter, something the movement’s leadership proved completely incapable of managing. Nonetheless, there were still a large number of Suffragists still at arms in the countryside and landholders remained worried that desperate politicians might just cause the next French Revolution, [00:14:00] reign of terror and all.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1842, it was the landholder government that initiated political terror. Governor King arrested and imprisoned dozens of Suffragists who either took positions in Dorr’s government or participated in his rebellion. The state’s prison cells filled to capacity and Dorrite women immediately began forming organizations and networks to raise relief money for the affected families. Most Dorrites steadily peeled off [00:14:30] from the movement as the military efforts collapsed. It seemed they would have to deal with the charter state after all. At least they could try to get a good compromise constitution.
More radical supporters like Aaron White though fully understood the sorts of precedence being set here. Rather than establishing the absolute right to revolution, the Dorrites now had to fight against federal intervention in a state’s domestic affairs. The slave holding interest infecting John Tyler’s White House would do [00:15:00] much better to reconsider their opposition to universal Suffrage. Otherwise, in 30 years time, Abolitionists might well use federal armies to smash slavery and use the name of John Tyler to justify it.

Speaker 2: Aaron White, Esquire, to Thomas Wilson Dorr, 3 June, 1842.
I’m glad to find you erect and that you are so well received by our New York friends. In Rhode Island, the forces of government nailed to our backs [00:15:30] by the bayonets of Captain Tyler still stands firm. The Algerines are indulging the cruelty of their hearts by persecuting our poor Suffrage friends wherever they dare to. Mr. Hanes and Mr. [Gabott 00:15:43] had been indicted for treason in Washington County and will probably be sent to the state’s prison. In selecting victims for the sacrifice, a decided preference is given for old Democrats. Whigs generally remain unmolested. Our friends bear these inflictions with great patience [00:16:00] and, in Providence, I fear that many have been fairly cowed down by the insolence and cruelty of their insulting oppressors.
In the country, we stand a little firmer and hold up the doctrine of resistance to arrest which probably prevents arrest and I think this the true course for those arrested to make a deep and discouraging impression. These points I throw out for your consideration. As to the actual presence of US troops on the 18th, I think it matters but little. [00:16:30] All the world knows that the US troops at Newport were, in reality, the main body of the Algerine army. They were sent to Rhode Island to explain the president’s letter. These modern teachers of constitutional law had received their books for our use in the shape of ball and cartridges.
It is an undeniable fact, strange as it may appear, that Rhode Island at this moment is, in reality, under a government, which is a government not by the will of the people, but by the will of John Tyler [00:17:00] and the force of his standing army. The president, bad as it is, may yet be of use. When President Bernie takes the throne, we will cram emancipating constitutions down the throats of the Southern nabobs by the same rule for if President Tyler, under pretense of suppressing domestic violence, can interfere in behalf of a minority of a minority to guarantee an aristocratic constitution of faction, then may President Bernie interfere to guarantee a Republican constitution [00:17:30] recognizing the equal rights of women.
I have written to Senator [Allen 00:17:35] and sent him documents and, among others, some anti‐​slavery papers which completely do away with the charge of abolitionism that has been brought against us as Suffrage men. I do not expect that anything will be done in June by the Algerine assembly. The scoundrels, stupid as they are, yet know their own destructive web too well to put a rod into our hands, which we and they know ought to be laid on their backs most soundly.

Anthony Comegna: [00:18:00] As the military stage of the revolution failed, Dorr’s most fervent supporters still looked forward to one great war that would extinguish the idea that governments could grant rights by charter or proclamation. Joseph [Pallard 00:18:15], for example, believed all New England was ready to burst into revolution. He only hoped the battle’s Locofocos started against monopoly banks, continued by Dorrites against landholder domination would ultimately give freedom [00:18:30] to Southern slaves. Slashing at his northern neighbors who allowed racism to infect their radical politics, Pallard wondered how people who loved to boast of their freedoms could tolerate three million people held to slavery in their midst. Northerners constantly aided and abetted Southern slavery with their political cover, their racism and their economic support. To Pallard and many others, Dorrism was a war against arbitrary power, whatever [00:19:00] its form. The real enemy remained the idea that political authority derived from a source outside the rights of individuals.
In a letter to the Democratic governor of Connecticut, Dorr wrote, “The doctrine of the cabinet at Washington is that our governments are corporations, that the authorities are the ultimate source of political power in this country and that no changes of government can take place without their consent.”
After [00:19:30] the almost comical failures of Dorr’s armies and while Dorrite men wasted away in state prisons, women activists took charge of the movement. They shifted from encouraging men to the battlefield toward shaming them from compromising with the landholders and organizing events. Excitement reached a fever pitch in August of 1842. Ann Parlin and Abby Lord wrote to Dorr that our husbands have been prisoners of war and now we are ready to be so. [00:20:00] Parlin and Lord were determined that Suffragist women undermine the regime. If that amounted to treason, then so be it. Ann Parlin even vowed to personally lead a Dorrite army to victory or death. If the nation’s men refused to help Rhode Islanders, she saw a great women’s movement rising up to do the work for them. Parlin blasted those Dorrites who are all valiant bluster in peace time and cowards in time of war.
[00:20:30] During one of his flights to safe haven, Thomas Dorr lost his correspondence bag containing evidence of his secret networking activities, including names of all the prominent people who conspired with him to make war on the charter. Two Suffragists women, Abby Lord and Matilda [Knowles 00:20:49], marched directly to the new Governor James Fenner’s doorstep. They knocked on his door, confronted him face–to–face accusing him of stealing Dorr’s letters. Abby Lord asked [00:21:00] him what right he had to seize a man’s private property for government use. She demanded he return the letters to her immediately. The governor replied that the letters were now public property. Lord remarked that she was a member of the public. Okay, then. They’re government property. Lord shot back, “You have one government and we have another. The question is which is the right one?” Fenner, undoubtedly annoyed, said he knew nothing of Dorr’s government. But Abby Lord persisted. [00:21:30] I said, “We mean to let you know something about it.” He says, “What will you do with us?” I said, “What we had a right to do with you.” Fenner burst into laughter and turned away.
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