In Rhode Island, 1842, politician Thomas W. Dorr (calling himself “The People’s Governor”) threatened civil war throughout New England. His main target was the famous colonial Charter issued by King Charles II in 1663. In the 19th century the document of world historical importance—the planet’s oldest existing written constitution at the time, and surely the most liberal in its own day. Radical Jacksonian and America’s first professional historian, George Bancroft, declared, “Nowhere in the world have life, LIBERTY, and property been safer than in Rhode Island.”
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.
Shalhope, Robert. “The Radicalism of Thomas Dorr,” Reviews in American History 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1974): 383-389.
Dan King, “The Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr” (1859)
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: In Rhode Island 1842, politician Thomas W. Dorr calling himself, the People’s Governor, threaten civil war throughout New England. His main target was the famous colonial charter issued by King Charles II in 1663.
In the 19th century, the document was of world historical importance, the planets oldest existing written constitution at the time, and [00:00:30] surely the most liberal in its own day.
Radical Jacksonian and America’s first professional historian George Bancroft declared, “Nowhere in the world have life, liberty, and property been safer than in Rhode Island.”
Yet, by 1841 the union smallest state was no longer a republic, and Bancroft was convinced that America’s libertarian destiny required a revolution in Rogues’ Island.
[00:01:00] Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna … Almost since its founding, Rhode Island was a democracy in decline.
Thanks to Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson’s battles with puritans in Massachusets Bay, the states founding principles were absolute religious liberty, and peaceful cooperative interactions between peoples.
In 1655, some small towns allowed [00:01:30] as much as 90% of white males to vote. By 1725 to 1776, that shrunk to an average of 75%. When the revolution came most states held constitutional conventions, Rhode Islanders kept their old charter and still probably had the most democratic government in the world.
It was the last ex-colony to ratify the constitution in the initial referendum lost by a huge margin. After federalist dominated, Providence threaten to secede from the state, [00:02:00] the countryside fell in line and join the union.
Throughout the 1790s, entrepreneurs and capitalist introduce industrialization to North America, first in Rhode Island and a large landless, urban, and immigrant population came with it.
By 1829, so few people owned land that they were only about 8,400 freemen and over 12,000 non-freemen. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, every other state [00:02:30] significantly extended voting rights or entirely abolish land holding requirements.
But, in Rhode Island the charter provided no method of amendment. There literally was no legal way to change the document unless you happen to have a king handy to issue a new one. And the government stubbornly refused any change in voting qualifications.
By 1841, not even most white men could vote, and Rhode Island was a republic in name only. Such a serious situation [00:03:00] called for a hero, but what Rhode Islanders got was Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Dorr was born in Providence on November 5, 1805, to one of the states leading families. He was a brilliant, privileged young man who studied law and look destined to become governor one day. But, in a by then crusty conservative state like Rhode Island Dorr had a problem, he was a radical liberal, a republican revolutionary.
From a young age Dorr was captivated with the liberal, and nationalist movements that [00:03:30] spread across Europe after Napoleon’s empire crashed. There were unification movements in Italy and Germany. Independence movements in Ireland, Greece, and Poland, and in France’s July revolution of 1830.
The Paris masses forced King Charles X to abdicate. Dorr believed that what the American revolution first started was now spreading around the globe, extinguishing old regimes with the unstoppable force of destiny.
Yet, even if global republicanism was mankind’s [00:04:00] inevitable future, people here and now, today have to choose to make the future happen. Dorr kept up a lively corespondents with European friends like; railroad engineer William Bridges Adams who often wrote for the liberal reform press, and was praised by John Stewart Mill on liberty.
When Adams sent Dorr a copy of his 1832 essay on ethics and politics, Dorr’s reply voice support for a wide ranging reforms in britain, and a liberal politics very nearly approaching modern libertarianism.
Speaker 2: [00:04:30] Thomas Wilson Dorr to Mr. William B. Adams of London, May 28, 1832. “Dear Sir, we had the news, a few days ago, that the Reform Bill has passed a second reading in the Lords, and will soon be discussed in committee.”
“At this distance, it seems improbable that it can become a law, without essential alterations, depriving it of much of its vigor, unless the liberal portion of the House of Lords shall be strongly reinforced.”
” [00:05:00] Earl Grey seems to have incurred a great hazard in going to the vote on the second reading, without a new creation of peers. Had the bill been lost, the disastrous consequences would have been an everlasting reproach to his memory.”
“I say memory because his head would probably have been lost also, unless Englishmen are made of different stuff than what we give them credit for. It seems most reasonable to presume that he had positive assurance of a small majority.”
“If your ministers were [00:05:30] very much in earnest, would they not make straight, quick work of the bill? There is ground for suspicion. But, after all that has been said, written, and done out of Parliament by the people, it is improbable to doubt that a reform equal to the necessities of the nation, will be had, in some way or other, and that speedily. For the sake of peace and humanity, it is to be hoped that the wisdom of the House of Lords will not come too late.”
“Your Rights of Morality contains many just statements and reflections. [00:06:00] But I agree with your critics in thinking that you have laid yourself open to a charge of Agrarianism, and that the class, for whom the book has intended, will understand you as teaching such a doctrine.”
“It was doubtless the intention of the beneficent Creator that all the individuals of the vast human family should subsist by the fruits of the earth, and there are certainly room enough for all who are sent into this breathing world. But, fraud, violence, ignorance, accident, and perverse human policy [00:06:30] have contradicted and postponed the true interests of mankind for ages.”
“It rejoices every philanthropic heart that there is now a strong tendency toward the natural arrangement. The perverse system of which I speak assigns to one man, or to a few men, vast tracks of land, to a large body only such small portions as barely to suffice to subsist them.”
“And to the majority, absolutely no share at all of the earth surface. [00:07:00] A large part of this majority, of course become virtually the slaves of the favored few, hewers of wood and drawers of water, feeding upon remnants, ignorant and corrupt.”
“These vast estates are accumulated by impolitic laws of entail and primogeniture. Vested rights of property exist under these laws. They are bad, and should be repealed, and the evil thus gradually corrected.”
“The poor man, who does not now enjoy his share of the fruits of the earth [00:07:30] according to the benign provision of his maker, will then, in time, receive a portion of the divided estate of the overgrown proprietor. Comfort, intelligence, and enterprise will denote that the greatest number has become happy and God meant they should be.”
“Now I complain that the poor man maybe led to think, by your book, that he has a present right to a portion of the great heritage, and may help himself without waiting for the slow process of legislation.”
“True, you tell him to be careful lest [00:08:00] he make his condition worse by attempting to do himself justice. But, his reply will be, “Concede my right and I will take the risk of the consequences.”
Anthony Comegna: The most historians have ignored the fact Thomas Wilson Dorr was also a Loco-Foco. He was a convert to America’s first libertarian movement. The Loco-Focos fought Tammany Hall for control of democratic parties nominating processes in the mid-1830s.
They won at least a partial [00:08:30] victory and succeeded in creating a more laissez-faire, more intellectually committed democratic party that emphasized absolute equal rights for all.
The Loco-Foco message was captivating for young men like Dorr. As early as 1833, he wanted anti-corporate banking reform, prison and education reforms, and a new state constitution.
In 1835, after a Charleston mob burned abolitionist male, and the administration did nothing in response. New [00:09:00] York Editorialist William Leggett lashed out at this violation of equal rights.
The democratic party officially ex-communicated Leggett, and people like Dorr took notice. He became an abolitionist, convinced that the democratic party guided by Loco-Foco philosophy could effectively deliver universal suffrage to Rhode Islanders.
For a more libertarian Loco-Foco future, Dorr looked back into Rhode Islands legendary founding. In a letter to America’s first professional [00:09:30] historian George Bancroft, Dorr invoke the life and ideas of Roger Williams as a source for inspiration in the here and now.
Speaker 2: Thomas Wilson Dorr letter to George Bancroft, November 25, 1835. “As Rhode Island men, we like the great and liberal views you have taken of the character and life of Roger Williams. And it gives us pleasure to see the founder of our state in his own time, [00:10:00] a poor oppress servant of God called by the multitude who cast them out. The heretic and disturber of the peace in church and state, taking his historical place as the illustrious advocate of religious and civil liberty.”
“The writings and aspirations of such a man are in the nature of prophecy. His just perception of the native and inalienable right of man, in a gloomy and unpropitious age, was in evidence of the capacity and worthiness not merely of his own, [00:10:30] but of the human mind to exist in a condition of greater freedom than was then known in the social state.”
“And this mind is capable of nothing to which it does not tend. Every discovery of a principle therefore come formable to the laws of its nature. He asserted in an age of ignorance and oppression, and combated, and overcome by the strong hand of prevalent tyranny is a prophecy of the destiny of mankind and better.”
“And it may be in remote times to recognize, adopt, [00:11:00] and realize that principle in its full extent. The prophecy of Williams is now fulfilled in the constitutions of our states and in that of the United States.”
“It is being fulfilled in the progress of equal rights, and republican principles in the country from which he came. The word of history is that nothing is good for a great and honest mind, in a dark period of the world, that is not ultimately good for the mind of the race, and that is not promised to its efforts for light and [00:11:30] emancipation.”
“The noble conceptions of the great men of the past are now in course of a rapid fulfillment. They did without the sight, but the present and generations to come will take care of their memory.”
Anthony Comegna: Their anti-slavery tendencies were always a thorny political problem for the Dorrites. They were smack in the middle of the northern state with the deepest and darkest ties to southern slavery.
Rhode Island was the single greatest source of slave [00:12:00] trade capital, sailors and shipping during the 18th century. And this legacy provided the basis of wealth for many of the states great families.
This was a deeply racist society, and while white males may have like Dorr’s rhetoric about universal equal rights, they hardly believed African/Americans were qualified for the same sort of citizenship as themselves.
A strong majority of Rhode Islanders including Dorrites believe their whiteness by itself elevated them above [00:12:30] black people. So, all this talk about equal political rights clearly did not apply to them.
Dorrites like Charles Peckham outright refused to even run for office, fearing that his various heresies, atheism, and abolitionism would set him up as a political punching bag for both parties to hurt the larger movement.
Speaker 2: Charles Peckham letter to Thomas Wilson Dorr, April 11, 1836. “Friend [00:13:00] Dorr, I was informed by constitutionalists that my name was placed in the list of Senators, and while it cannot be but a pleasure to me thus to have the good opinion of the committee who have placed me on the constitutional ticket, I think it my duty to the committee and to myself to state the objections, which can be argued against me. So that if it be too late to substitute another name in my place before the coming elections, and that without giving me the least offense, it shall be deemed necessary in advancing the general [00:13:30] good, which we would deserve.”
“In the first place then, an objection of the logical heterodoxy might be argued against me by religionists. For after much examination, and love lost all faith in the supernatural, and as I am one who firmly believes that truth is a friend, an error of the enemy of man. I have never hesitated to utter the deep convictions of my heart be the consequences to myself what they might.”
“Of course, I have had some cruel wounds inflicted upon me. [00:14:00] The next objection, which maybe brought against me is my utter [opporence 00:14:04] of negro slavery, and I am in favor of the free discussion of the whole matter. However much the [despets 00:14:11] peace maybe disturbed.”
“My lesson of abolitionism was learnt in a slave holding state, before a single press had uttered a voice in the north. And I know from my own seeing that the enormities of slavery are too great to be overlooked. And the system so forcible as to admit of no palliation.”
” [00:14:30] I have discovered nothing in historic or philosophic truth unfavorable to immediate emancipation. And in so far as it can be brought about by moral means, my whole heart and soul are devoted.”
Anthony Comegna: In 1837, Dorr wrote to the Rhode Islands State Anti-slavery Society declaring his full support for abolitionism. He wanted abolition in Washington DC, repeal of the gag rule that prevented anti-slavery discussion in congress.
He opposed annex in Texas, [00:15:00] still he agreed with people like Peckham and thought that anti-slavery politics was best left to the transcendentalists and poetic dreamers.
As proof, he had letters from supporters like C. W. Needham who asked, “And why should we undertake to settle the question of slavery? We have nothing to do with it.”
By 1840, Dorr and most of his suffragists settled in with Martin Van Buren’s democrats. In letters to Boston’s resident Loco-Foco intellectual Orestes Brownson, [00:15:30] and Jacksonian political boss Amos Kendall; Dorr wrote that the wigs had to be fought because they meant to roll back everything Loco-Foco democrats had gained throughout the country in recent years.
They were the staunch enemies of all things reform, and any political route to a new state constitution would have to go through the democratic party. As early as September 1839, in fact, Loco-Foco Levi Slamm join the crusade for equal rights in Rhode Island.
Slamm argued that US [00:16:00] constitution guaranteed citizens a republican form of government, and the people possessed an absolute right to alter or abolish their existing governments at will.
On March 27, 1840, Dorrites and abolitionists founded the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. A little over a year later they called for a People’s Constitutional Convention. The convention met in October and crafted a new constitution for Rhode Island on [00:16:30] the basis of universal white male suffrage.
Race remain the sharpest dividing line at the People’s Convention, with delegates like Dorr opposed to the race qualification and the majority in favor 46 to 18. The People’s Constitution officially affirmed its spontaneous, popular, revolutionary origins guaranteed by a host of Loco-Foco reforms and provided for further amendment.
The vote took place from the 27th to the 29th of December 1841. [00:17:00] Voters overwhelmingly approved it, almost 14,000 in favor and a meager 52 opposed. That even included a majority of freeholders almost 5,000 out of 8,000.
The state assembly responded to the Dorrites irregular, unsanctioned convention with an authorized one of their own in February 1842. Dorr attended as a delegate and tried to convince them to abandon their project, and pledge themself to the People’s Constitution. [00:17:30] The land holders bitterly refused.
Their proposed constitution agreed to universalized suffrage for native born white males, but it kept the land holding requirement for naturalized immigrants.
In March, the land holders’ constitution loss 8,689 to 8,013. Over 8,000 Dorrites either abstained, or were excluded by the voting qualifications. The People’s Constitution meanwhile called for elections [00:18:00] in April, and Rhode Islanders divided themselves up into waring camps.
Everywhere, towns and even families violently ruptured into political conflict, none more so than Dorr’s own. In April, his parents wrote to him to express their deepest shame and regret that their son who is once so promising was now about to plunge their state into civil war.
Speaker 2: Henry and Lydia Dorr to their son, April 8, 1842. ” [00:18:30] We hear with great pain that you are about publishing a proclamation at the head of which you are named governor of the state, which is a violation of the lawful authority of the state.”
“It grieves us to the heart to know that a son of ours arrived at so mature an age, and so well versed in the laws of his country should be a participant in acts calculated to bring the state into destruction.”
“Arouse passions which you cannot allay, and which God forbid produce civil strife attended with bloodshed [00:19:00] and murders. We beseech you. We pray you to pause before you pass the Rubicon and become engulfed in political, criminal degradation where our feeble prayers will not avail to save you from disgrace and ruin.”
“We again beg entreat and pray you to retire from the strife you are inciting, for the law must prevail or all government is at an end. If your heart is sensible to the parental anguish we have and now suffer, we pray our heavenly father will vouchsafe [00:19:30] and awaken in yours a corresponding feeling for our sufferings. And influence you to renounce the course you are pursuing and restore us to a peace of mind, which has for a long time been a stranger to us.”
“May God in his infinite mercy prompt you to a decision, which only can restore you to the good opinion of your friends and fellow citizens whose esteem is worth the cultivation. And preserve our grey hairs from that shame and disgrace, which will attend forever if successful your present course [00:20:00] and hurry us sorrowing to the grave. Your affectionate parents and best friends; Sullivan Dorr, Lydia Dorr.”
Anthony Comegna: In the 18th of April, people’s elections Dorr got 6,604 votes for Governor. A significant plunge of support from the December vote on the People’s Constitution.
Many people thought the assembly was open to negotiation, and actual fighting would only hurt the people’s [00:20:30] case. Dorr still claimed the majority of voters, supported the People’s Constitution and their Governor.
Meanwhile, the Charter election puts Samuel Ward King in office for his fourth term as Rhode Island’s Governor. By May 1842, there were two state governments, can you imagine a worse situation?
Governor King declared the Dorrites treasonous and the assembly passed Acts [criminizing 00:20:54] the people’s regime. President Tyler added to the combustible mix by guaranteeing federal [00:21:00] troops to put down any rebellion.
Dorr and his supporters reacted with a frenzy of networking activity, looking to drum up support from out of state. Ideally, they could still couple together in national coalition in congress to recognize their government.
He and many others wrote back and forth to top democrats around the country making their case. By far, Dorr’s greatest support came from New York’s Loco-Focos.
William [Bouche 00:21:26] pledge military aid from the city’s working men in April. Allen [00:21:30] Sniffen one of the original Loco-Focos who conspired against Tammany Hall in the military and civic hotel promised full regiments.
Perhaps more importantly, he vowed to champion the cause openly before Tammany Hall. Smelling rebellion all around him, Governor King declared Marshall Law in late April, and the Dorrites planned to assault state buildings in response.
The legislature officially requested federal support on the 4th of May, and President Tyler sent military [00:22:00] advisors. This week display of commitment encourage the suffrages, but Dorr expected he’d be captured and fled the state.
He sailed into New York City on May 8th, and spent days visiting prominent Loco-Focos like Levi Slamm, hatching plans for an invasion. He believed that Rhode Island maybe tiny, and its people weak on their own. But, a struggle built around class divisions could provide the force necessary to put him in the governor’s mansion.
If the common people [00:22:30] were awaken to the fact that a small band of aristocrats were risking civil war to unjustly hold on to their power, all exploited Americans would rise up to support their natural allies; the suffragists.
Flurries of letters from New York Loco-Focos convinced him that they were fully behind the Rhode Islanders.
Speaker 2: Alexander Ming Jr. And Alexander Craston to Thomas Wilson Dorr, May 13, 1842. ” [00:23:00] Dear Sir, several military companies of this city and vicinity having tendered their services to us to form a military escort to accompany you to Providence, we have the honor to apprise you of the fact.”
“This honor, which they so much desire we hope will meet with your cheerful acceptance. Quarter Master Slamm will await your reply. With sentiments of the highest respect, we are respectfully, Alexander Ming Jr. Colonel, 13th Regimen, [00:23:30] New York State Artillery. Alexander Craston Lieutenant Colonel of the 236th Regimen, New York Infantry.”
Anthony Comegna: In New York City, a park meeting of Loco-Focos elected emissaries to Rhode Island that would travel back with Dorr.
They chose Levi Slamm and several others, and as quickly as that Dorr left. He did not have a proper army together yet, but he was certain the moral force of justice was on his side. The People’s Governor back [00:24:00] in Providence ordered his forces to attack and seize that state arsenal on May 19th.
His own father and brother were inside training cannons on their radical relative. The civil war everyone had been fearing for months was on.
Next week on Liberty Chronicles, we light up those cannons and see what the Dorrites were really made of.
[00:24:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org, it is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicle visit libertarianism.org.