Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DORR REBELLION (IN U. S. HISTORY), an effort made in 1840-42, to overturn the state government of Rhode Island by revolutionary means. While the other states, before and after the declaration of independence, formed new governments, Rhode Island and Connecticut were contented to retain the charter governments under which they had lived as colonies. In the following half century the Rhode Island government became progressively more distasteful to many of her citizens, two-thirds of whom were disfranchised by its provision that the right of suffrage should be exercised only by the owners of a specified amount of real estate and by their eldest sons. Thomas W. Dorr, of Providence, a member of the assembly, took the lead in the effort to obtain a more extended suffrage, but the legal voters and their representatives were equally obstinate, and Dorr's proposition received only seven votes out of 70. Dorr then resorted to mass meetings through the winter of 1840-41, as an indication of popular feeling, and finally to a convention of delegates, which met in October, 1841, prepared a constitution, and submitted it to a popular vote. It claimed to have received 14,000 votes, a majority of the legal voters of the state, but its opponents asserted that the figures were fraudulent. Jan. 13, 1842, the new constitution was proclaimed in force. April 13, a state election took place, at which only the "suffrage party" voted, and at which Dorr was chosen governor and a full legislature elected. The legitimate state government treated these proceedings as nugatory, so far as they went to establish a new constitution, and criminal, so far as they proposed to legalize the exercise of authority by persons unauthorized to do so.


—May 3, 1842, the rival governments assembled, the "charter legislature" at Newport, with governor Samuel W. King, and the "suffrage legislature" at Providence, with Thomas W. Dorr as governor. The suffrage legislature sat for two days, chose a supreme court, and transacted considerable business on paper. May 4, it adjourned until July, but never met again. In the meantime the charter legislature had passed bills to define the crime of treason, and to authorize the governor to proclaim martial law. The governor did so, and asked help from Washington. President Tyler directed the secretary of war to confer with governor King, and, whenever they should deem it necessary, to order in Massachusetts and Connecticut militia and terminate the rebellion at once. The suffrage party appealed to arms, and, on May 18 and 25, endeavored to capture Providence and its arsenal. Their forces each time dispersed at the approach of the state troops, and, May 28, Dorr fled to Connecticut and thence to New Hampshire. A reward was offered for his arrest, whereupon he voluntarily returned, was indicted in August, 1842, tried in March, 1844, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. In 1847 he was pardoned, and in 1852 the legislature restored him to his civil rights and expunged the record of his sentence.


—In the meantime a new constitution had been framed, in November, 1842, by the charter party had been adopted by the people, Nov. 21-23, and went into operation in May, 1843. It extended the right of suffrage by reducing the property qualification to a nominal amount, but maintained the principle on which the Dorr rebellion had been put down, that when the people have once established a government, it is the legitimate government with all its limitations, and that no new government can be introduced except under the provisions of an act of legislation by the existing government. (See RHODE ISLAND; INSURRECTION, DOMESTIC; BROAD SEAL WAR.)


—See Luther vs. Borden, 7 How., 1; 3 Spencer's United States, 421; Peterson's History of Rhode Island; 6 Webster's Works, 217; Frieze's Concise History; King's Life of Dorr; Judge Potter's Considerations on the Rhode Island Question; 15 Democratic Review, 122; F. H. Whipple's Might and Right; Goddard's Change in the Government of Rhode Island; F. Wayland's Affairs of Rhode Island; Reports of the Select Committee of Congress on the Affairs of Rhode Island, (1845); Bartlett's Bibliography of Rhode Island; 15 Benton's Debates of Congress, 130.


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