We at The Junto are thrilled to host this guest post from Erik J. Chaput and Russell J. DeSimone, who are the historians-in-residence on the Dorr Rebellion Project Site sponsored by Providence College. Chaput is the author of The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (University Press of Kansas, 2013). DeSimone is the author of Rhode Island’s Rebellion (Bartlett Press, 2009). Chaput and DeSimone have collaborated on a number of projects, including this article on Common-place.org. Chaput and DeSimone welcome feedback on the site. They can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
When Rhode Island finally ratified the U.S. Constitution in May 1790, the state sent back to Congress eighteen amendments. These amendments revealed a deep suspicion of the new central establishment, a suspicion that had been increased by the failure to include a bill of rights. The first line of the lengthy third amendment declared that “the powers of government may be reassumed by the people, whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.”
A half-century later these views were still very much alive in Rhode Island. Those who believed in the sanctity of the people’s sovereignty were of a persuasion that the citizenry could affect constitutional change outside of the ballot box. In the waning days of December 1841, nearly 14,000 Rhode Islanders cast their votes of approval for a constitution that emerged from an extralegal convention held in the city of Providence.
The People’s Constitution greatly broadened the suffrage, a long-time bone of contention for the state’s sizeable immigrant and laboring classes who were disenfranchised under the 1663 Charter. Unlike other states, Rhode Island did not write its own constitution after the American Revolution. Delegates to the People’s Convention wanted to move Rhode Island into the modern era.
For Providence attorney Thomas Wilson Dorr, the leader of the constitutional reform movement, the 1776 Declaration of Independence “was not merely designed to set forth a rhetorical enumeration of an abstract barrier to belligerent rights.” Instead, he proclaimed that the “absolute supremacy of the People over their political institutions is the primary doctrine of our Democratic republic.” Though he was far from a firebrand like the labor leader Seth Luther, Dorr’s new found bravado in the spring of 1842 began to scare Rhode Island conservatives.
On New Years Day 1842, Thomas Dorr and the Rhode Island Suffrage Association hailed the People’s Constitution as the state’s new governing document. By April 1842, there were two governors and two legislative assemblies vying for control. Both sides appealed to President John Tyler for help. The story of the ensuing clash is detailed on the new Dorr Rebellion Project site sponsored by Providence College.
The Dorr Rebellion Project site was launched in September of 2011 with an aim to develop an authoritative online open educational resource (OER) on the Dorr Rebellion and to engage in new forms of discourse. The site currently includes an 20-minute documentary that provides a succinct overview of the constitutional crisis that erupted in Rhode Island in 1841-1842, a gallery of select images, lesson plans, a constitutional comparison page, a database of select letters to and from Thomas Wilson Dorr, and links to articles, educational materials, and Dorr-related events. It is the intent of the developers to expand the content over time to further elucidate the historical event.