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In July 1842, Rhode Island had two state governments. The rest of New England watched, wondering if they would spill into a civil war.

In July 1842, Rhode Island had two state governments divided into armed camps. The rest of New England watched, wondering if what they called “The Rhode Island Question” would spill into a widespread civil war. The fight was over which of the state’s two dueling authorities was legitimate—the Charter government established in 1663 by King Charles II, or the People’s Constitution which bypassed the legislature with a popular convention and vote.

Further Readings/​References:

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.

Frances Whipple & Levi Slamm: “Let Usurpers Tremble: The Unrepublican Anomaly” (1842)

Ann Parlin, Speech at New York’s Shakespeare Hotel (1842)

Marcus Morton’s Clam Bake Letter (1842)

Music by Kai Engel


Anthony Comegna: In July 1842, Rhode Island had two state governments divided into armed camps. The rest of New England watched, wondering if what they called the Rhode Island Question would spill into a widespread civil war. The fight was over which of the states two dueling authorities was legitimate, the charter government established in 1663 by King Charles II [00:00:30] or the People’s Constitution, which bypassed the legislature with a popular convention and vote.
In both major engagements at the Providence Arsenal and Acotes Hill in Chepachet, Dorr’s warriors fled at the first signs of actual battle. These were no soldiers and few of them ever expected to fire shots. The ragtag force of young men and old mechanics broke and ran at the first signs of resistance from state militia. Over the summer and into the early fall, the old state government filled the jails [00:01:00] to bursting with suffragists who participated in either the rogue state or Dorr’s military efforts.
Where men dropped their weapons and ran, women picked them back up and charted their own course for reform. Throughout New England, women activists hosted clambakes as fundraising political feasts. Today we would say they were raising awareness. They raised funds to relieve prisoners families, discourage cooperation with the state’s old government, and spread a radical proto‐​Libertarian [00:01:30] philosophy called Locofocoism. These were the high water mark of the Dorr movement, far more successful than Dorr’s own abortive civil war.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libra​ter​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
Much as we might appreciate the revolutionary, [00:02:00] even anarchistic, implications of Dorr’s ideas, it must be admitted that he was a terribly ill‐​equipped leader. Charging ahead into battle without having built real political support, Dorr soon lost every suffragist who favored peaceful action. Eager to be the new people’s governor for real, Dorr rushed ahead to fight it out with state troops. It was a huge disappointment, a complete failure, almost comical, if the matter at hand weren’t so serious.
Radical Republicans [00:02:30] across the north poured out contempt on Dorr’s deserter‐​filled army and Rhode Islanders’ weak‐​willed Republicanism. One correspondent wrote to Levi Slam’s New York “Daily Plebeian” immortalizing the Rhode Island catastrophe in verse.

Speaker 2: “The Rhode Island Catastrophe” by ‘Nuff Said. New York “Daily Plebeian.” July 2, 1842.
Ye moral force, New Englanders, ye peacemen one and all, up, up and praise Rhode [00:03:00] Islanders as loud as ye can bawl. Laud first Rhode Island charterists. They have been quite humane. Laud next the mild free suffragers, for no one have they slain. Yet never were such words of blood and yet so little shed if either party would have stood, the other would have fled. Both parties cried aloud for aid. They were in such a fright, and both were willing to look on while others fought their fight.
Oh, never yet were such ye men, not since [00:03:30] the world began. Rhode Island has no true free men. ‘Tis feared she never can. The cause of freedom oft has met with daring manly foes, unlike the braggart, soulless set, the charter writes compose. And freedom’s sons have ever been the gallant and the true, unlike Rhode Island suffragers, a craven‐​hearted crew. The great commander, [inaudible 00:03:54] king, with she rose great and small. He took Chepachet camp without gunpowder, swore at our [00:04:00] bawl.
A cow was shot, the best blood shed, a woman fainted quick. An officer by chance shot dead and by a lunatic. And thus the revolution ceased. ‘Twas all a sounding brass. It opened with sublimity, but ended like a fass. Ye moral force, New Englanders, ye peacemen one and all, up, up and praise Rhode Islanders as loud as ye can bawl.

Anthony Comegna: While Rhode Island’s male suffragists either languished in prison [00:04:30] cells or crept back into the countryside, women overtook the movement. They connected exiled suffragists with their allies across the region, especially the old Locofoco faction of radical Democrats in New York City. Francis Whipple, a writer, journalist, Abolitionist, and suffrage activist, wrote to Levi Slam’s “Daily Plebeian” that the Dorr war was not confined to tiny Rhode Island.
It was a moment of world historical importance. It was a contest to save the very vitals [00:05:00] of Republicanism, the right to revolution, and the right to a genuinely popular government. Despite the failures of suffragist men, she still had hopes for military efforts. Fortunately for the cause of peace, the very next day suffragist women in Rhode Island began their own peaceful reformist movement. They wanted to revive a grand Narragansett Indian tradition, which had become a New England favorite, the community clambake, and graft it into [00:05:30] Jacksonian politics.
As news of their planning filtered out to Whig party presses, conservatives who uniformly hated the Dorrites, the suffragists’ every move was suspect. “The Providence Evening Chronicle” on August 4th, 1842, reported, “We have reason to believe that serious mischief is contemplated. We have all along thought that violence would be attempted by certain people out of this state.” Those “certain people out of this state” were New York Locofocos, those [00:06:00] radical proto‐​Libertarians who spent two years battling Tammany Hall for prominence in the state and national party.
The “Chronicle” referred to a Locofoco gathering about to happen, and asked its audience, “Let us be watchful.” Clambakers streamed through the streets of Providence and boarded steamers and ferries bound toward Pomham Rocks Lighthouse across the Massachusetts border. The “Chronicle” suggested, “There ought to be a strong patrol on duty this evening, while the whole military of the city should be [00:06:30] under arms, ready to move at a moment’s warning.”
3,000 to 4,000 Rhode Islanders and sympathizers from Massachusetts gathered there in the bay, 2/3 of them women and children. One Dorr‐​friendly paper later snarkily remarked that the nervous Whig presses should feel ashamed of themselves for having sounded alarms.

Speaker 2: The Bay State Democrat of Saturday gives a long and interesting account of a clambake and chowder party [00:07:00] on Thursday last at Medbury Grove, Sea Conch, Massachusetts, under the direction of the suffrage ladies of Providence and vicinity. About 4,000 men, women, and children were present and the proceedings were conducted in a manner highly creditable to the patriotic ladies of Rhode Island. Spirited resolutions were adopted and addresses were made. The clambake set the charter party in Rhode Island in a great stew.
We copy the Democrats’ description of the repast. The gentle [00:07:30] breeze from the bay and healthy exercise naturally created a pretty good appetite, and the ladies under whose patronage the whole affair was conducted had anticipated these wants and provided an abundant supply of all the necessaries and luxuries that the most nice in these matters could desire. But the great clam and chowder entertainment deserved particular attention. It was a grand affair, got up on a grand scale, and consisted of no less than 80 bushels of clams [00:08:00] and four barrels of chowder, the latter being made in a cauldron of that size which was fully filled and of the finest quality.
The process of baking the clams is simple and unique, and deserves particular description. A hole was dug in the sand, which was lined with clean stones from the bottom to the top. This reservoir, or cauldron, was then filled with dry fuel, which was set on fire and burned ’til the stones became well charged with caloric. The coals were then swept out clean and the hole [00:08:30] nearly filled with clams. Over these, seaweed, washed clean, was thrown to prevent the heat from escaping. The steam from the water of the clams, being prevented from escaping, together with the heat of the stones cooked the clams in the most excellent manner.
80 bushels, as before stated, of clams of the finest sort were cooked in this way and served up to the multitude, who were assembled in groups under the shade of trees according to their tastes and wants.

Anthony Comegna: [00:09:00] The proceedings, while radical in tone and content, went off completely tame. In a description widely quoted in other papers, the Bay State Democrat showed how peaceful and pleasant radicalism could be.

Speaker 2: “The Grand Army,” “The New Hampshire Patriot,” and “State Gazette,” August 11th, 1842.
“The Providence Chronicle” of the fourth this month recommended that a strong patrol be on duty in Providence that evening, and that the whole military of the city [00:09:30] be under arms, ready to move at a moment’s warning, because a number of men and women were partaking of a clambake in that vicinity. It is a pity that the editor of the “Chronicle” couldn’t have had his head baked with the clams, for it must be softer than that of any shellfish to sound the above alarm.
The following is the account of the terrible affair, which called for a strong patrol and the arming of all the Providence military, as given by the “Providence Journal” charterists. The suffrage clambake, which has been [00:10:00] announced for some week, took place yesterday at Pomham Rocks on the Massachusetts side of the bay. A number went in a steamboat, and when it left the wharf, one of the discharged prisoners called out. “Three cheers for Governor Dorr and the Constitution!” The cheers were given, but rather feebly.
Speeches were made by men from Boston and clams and patriotism were served up in great profusion. The number present was variously estimated from 800 to 3,000, about 2/3 of them [00:10:30] women and children.

Anthony Comegna: New England Whigs ridiculed the clambakers, saying their resolutions were “pretty fair for a parcel of spunky women while their henpecked husbands were sitting and looking on, a nice little petticoat revolution, truly.” What Whigs really feared, though, was that those resolutions, written by women and adopted by huge crowds, they really, truly were radical.
They outright pronounced the charter null and void, [00:11:00] the outdated instrument of a profligate, degenerate king. They declared for the People’s Constitution and their proper governor, Thomas W. Dorr. They slashed at the charter regime and its Whig supporters, calling them “soulless usurpers,” and they said President John Tyler deserved nothing but hatred from every good Republican for having threatened federal interference.
The speeches followed suit with the resolutions. The question was whether the people were sovereign, or if the forms of government possessed [00:11:30] sovereignty of their own. When you strip events down to what actually happened, the people of Rhode Island overwhelmingly voted for a new government and the old one, whose authority derived from a 17th century king, almost immediately began orchestrating a counterrevolution to snuff out the new one.
What else, then, could you call it when an armed aristocratic government forcibly overturned and imprisoned the people’s elected governors? It could only be a tyranny, [00:12:00] an attempt at feudal European counterrevolution in these formerly free republics of America. Though the immediate prospects for victory were dim, history guaranteed it in the end.
This was humanity’s Republican destiny becoming manifest and real by people taking direct action first in Rhode Island, then across the world. Power could be beaten back and the cycle of history broken. [00:12:30] Speaker George Barstow looked forward to the day when tyranny is dead and tyrants are remembered only to be execrated. The next clambake was held on August 24th in Somerset, Massachusetts. The weather was rainy and the crowd small, but still 1,590 people showed up to eat 100 bushels of clams and 500 pounds of fish.
Suffragist women were convinced that the charter regime would not charge hundreds of ladies with [00:13:00] treason, so on they went with it. On August 30th, between 5,000 and 10,000 gathered at Pomham Rocks Lighthouse again. Another paper reported 10,000 to 15,000 of them, including, once again, Ann Parlin, who then and there vowed to personally lead an army of women to release the Dorrite political prisoners.
While I kind of wish they’d gone through with that idea, the hungry activists instead settled in for what people were then calling the Great Clambake. Among the features were letters [00:13:30] of address from former president Martin Van Buren, former Massachusetts governor Marcus Morton, Pennsylvania senator and future president James Buchanan, and General James McNeil of New Hampshire.
General McNeil’s letter was especially militant and anti‐​British. He demanded millions rise in revolution to restore the people’s government.

Speaker 2: “New Hampshire Patriot” and “State Gazette.” September 22nd, 1842.
The following is General McNeil’s reply to the [00:14:00] invitation to go to to the clambake.
Hillsboro, August 29th, 1842.
My dear sir,
I acknowledge with pleasure your invitation to meet the friends of free suffrage at the mass clam bake and regret that it is not in my power to be present on that interest occasion. Accept my thanks for the flattering terms in which you are pleased to speak of my attachment to the cause of liberty and equal rights. I trust I shall never be found sympathizing with those who would strengthen the hands of tyrants [00:14:30] and crush the liberties of man.
If men can be found in America who will take their stand upon a British charter and attempt to enforce by martial law the arbitrary doctrines of the English monarchy, may millions of free men arise and bring the contest to a speedy termination. I regard the struggle in which you are engaged as involving the same principles contended for in the revolution, the right of the people to establish government, and I believe the result will be the same now as in the days that tried men’s souls.
[00:15:00] Come what may, that great principle must not be yielded up. I am gratified to see that public opinion is rapidly coming over to your side. As fast as the people understand the nature of your struggle, they unite to sustain your cause. You have made no unreasonable demands. You have only required universal suffrage and equal representation. These are your birthrights as freemen and you have a right to demand them.
I would urge you to stand by your Constitution and your governor, Thomas W. [00:15:30] Dorr, and it is my ardent wish to see every free heart in American warmly espouse your cause.

Anthony Comegna: As winter set in, the clambaking ground to a halt. As early as the 9th of February, 1843, Boston Democrats staged the next clambake. Dorr himself was rumored to be in attendance, though he did not appear. Both Whig and Democratic presses claimed the rumor was a hoax got up to sell the tickets. As “The Daily Atlas” was quick to note, though, [00:16:00] something of the original fire had gone out of the clambakes and the plot failed to produce a sizeable audience.
By September 1843, Democrats sufficiently replicated the original clambaking phenomenon. They became a completely partisan affair with little left of the original Dorrite message. A large crowd gathered at Bellingham, Massachusetts, for music, political speeches, and what one paper called “those potent Whig‐​scarers baked clams.” The speeches and resolutions [00:16:30] endorsed Martin Van Buren for president in 1844 and concluded business.
But Van Buren came out against annexing Texas earlier that spring, and it killed his chances in convention. His stance made him unacceptable to southern expansionists and those northerners who believed Republicanism was a global cause. Clambaking Dorrites easily shifted from the Van Buren to the Polk camp. Remember, though a handful of them were hardcore Abolitionists, [00:17:00] most of them were your average racist northerners.
Polk had a sterling reputation as a strong equal rights man in the House in the late 1830s. It was he that had pushed through much of the Van Buren program, which won back over the New York Locofocos. In Woonsocket, three months before the election, Dorrite women activists gathered 6,000 to 8,000 people. All the friends of Polk, Dallas, and Mr. Dorr were invited to attend, “The Daily Atlas” reported.
[00:17:30] A month later, 25,000 Democratic supporters of Polk and Dallas and Governor Dorr, equal laws, and equal rights, etc., hosted the final act in a long drama at Swampscott, Massachusetts, the largest clambake of the era.

Speaker 2: “Portsmouth, New Hampshire Gazette,” September 10th, 1844.
25,000 Democrats at Swampscott Hill.
The Democratic gathering at the Swampscott [00:18:00] clambake on Friday last was very large, exceeding by tens of thousands the most sanguine expectations of our friends. A careful computation proved the number to be not less than 25,000, including at least 5,000 ladies. The grand procession was formed at 10:00 and was at least one mile and a half in length, decked out with flags and banners with the watch words “Polk and Dallas, Governor Dorr, equal laws and equal rights,” etc..
The place [00:18:30] for holding the convention was admirably adapted to the purpose, being on an eminence, commanding distinct views of Bunker Hill Monument, Nahant, Egg Rock, Phillips Beach, Marblehead, and the Bread Bosom of Massachusetts Bay. The fires were lighted in seven vast ovens, 30 feet in circumference, for roasting clams, of which 170 barrels had been provided, together with 1,000 lobsters, with all the needful for a chowder of which 200 gallons were cooked.
A beautiful [00:19:00] structure was erected for the orators, covered with evergreens and bedecked with garlands, wreaths, and festoons, which afforded an agreeable shade for the speaker. A magnificent arch had been erecting, bearing the inscription “Welcome, friends of free suffrage!” The head of the procession was composed of a superb military escort, led by Captain AB Ingles of the [haim 00:19:23] Riflemen and Adjutant Burbank of the Artillery, the Marblehead Infantry, and the [haim 00:19:29] Riflemen, each accompanied [00:19:30] with a full band.
At 1:00, the convention was called to order and Jonathan C. Stickney, Esq., was unanimously chosen president with some dozen vice‐​presidents and a half‐​dozen secretaries. On taking the chair, the president delivered an eloquent address, avowing his hearty concurrence in the principles and measures of the party. “When,” said he, “the sovereign power of public opinion, that great lever by which the world is now moved and turned, shall have been directed to his [00:20:00] case, the emancipation of governor will be speedily accomplished.”
Colonel Hart of New York afterwards dashed into a bold and animated speech and promised the majority of from 10,000 to 20,000 in New York for Polk and Dallas. The meeting was also ably and eloquently addressed by Mister Rantoole, Wright, Jocelyn, and others. The Rhode Island Question, the bank, Texas, and Oregon were in turn discussed to the visible gratification of all present. A series of excellent [00:20:30] resolutions were passed and a succession of cheers for Polk and Dallas, Bancroft, and Childs, and Governor Dorr. The convention was declared to be dissolved.

Anthony Comegna: The clambakes left us a complicated legacy. On the one hand, they were fabulous examples of grassroots activism and political education. On the other hand, they easily became co‐​opted by scheming politicians. They began as defiant calls to withdraw completely from the politics [00:21:00] of compromise. They ended with a whoop and a holler from one of the south’s great planters, James K. Polk, the man who concocted a war to steal half of Mexico and set up the United States as a continental empire.
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