Voting Rights and the Dorr Rebellion

While Rhode Island had been a haven refuge for free thinkers and religious dissidents since its founding in the seventeenth century, weakness in its political structure became apparent during the industrial revolution.

Roger Williams founded the Rhode Island Colony in 1636 after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views. Williams settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay near the Mashassuck River where the farmland was rich and fertile. He called the site Providence. The charter he received from King Charles II allowed Rhode Island "to hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty of religious concernments".

On the Shop Floor - Museum of Work and Culture Under the charter received from King Charles, only landowners could vote. Before the industrial revolution when most people were employed as farmers, this was considered democratic. As the industrial revolution moved large numbers of workers from farm to factory, a permanent landless, and therefore voteless class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote.

Prior to the 1840's, several unsuccessful attempts were made to replace the charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights. In 1841, suffrage supporters, led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, gave up on attempts to change the system from within. In October, they held a People's Convention that enfranchised all white males with one year's residence. Voters overwhelmingly supported a referendum on the People's Convention in December. When efforts to implement the referendum were opposed by the conservative Charterite government, Dorr and his followers attempted to implement it by force.

With a majority of the militia throughout the state, including the "Woonsocket Light Infantry", supporting his cause, Thomas Dorr led an unsuccessful attack against the Arsenal in Providence on May 19, 1842. Defenders of the Arsenal on the Charterite side included Thomas Dorr's father, Sullivan Dorr, and his uncle, Crawford Allen. At the time, these men owned the Bernon Mill Village in Woonsocket. After his defeat, Thomas Dorr and his supporters retreated to Chepachet where they hoped to reconvene the People's Convention.

Holder Block Charterite forces were sent to Woonsocket to defend the village and to cut off the retreat of the Dorrite forces. The Charterites fortified the Holder Block in Market Square in anticipation of an expected attack. Steel plates were placed over the windows with just enough room left between the armor for men to fire on the Dorrite forces who were expected to come marching down South Main Street. The expected attack never happened and the Dorr Rebellion fell apart shortly thereafter.

Thomas Dorr disbanded the rebel forces and fled the state. He later returned and spent several years in prison before he was unconditionally pardoned in 1845. In November, 1842, the Rhode Island Legislature passed reforms that allowed any white male to vote that owned land or could pay a $1 poll tax.

This page utilizes information from:

  • History You Can See - Scenes of Change In Rhode Island 1790-1910 written by Hadassah Davis and Natalie Robinson and published by the League of Rhode Island Historical Societies, Providence, 1986.
  • A History of Rhode Island Working People, edited by Paul Buhle, Scott Molloy, and Gail Sansbury and published by Regine Printing Co., Providence, 1983.

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