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Under Rhode Island's charter, originally received from King Charles II of England in 1663, only landowners could vote. At the time, when most of the citizens of the colonies were farmers, this was considered fairly democratic. By the 1840s landed property worth at least $134 was required in order to vote. However as the industrial revolution reached North America and people moved into the cities, it created large numbers of people who could not vote. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote.
This was held by some to violate Article IV, Section 4 of the United States Constitution which held that "the United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government." In short, many held an electorate made up of only 40% of the white males of the state (no one thought to mention women or any minorities) was held to be un-republican and hence in violation of the Constitution.
Prior to the 1840s, several attempts were made to replace the colonial charter with a new state constitution that provided broader voting rights, but all failed. The Charter lacked a procedure for amendment. The legislature had consistently failed to liberalize the constitution by extending voting rights, enacting a bill of rights, or reapportioning the legislature. By 1840, Rhode Island was the only state without universal suffrage for white males.
In 1841, suffrage supporters, led by Dorr, gave up on attempts to change the system from within. In October, they held an extralegal People's Convention and drafted a new constitution that granted the vote to all white males with one year's residence. At the same time the state legislature formed a rival convention and drafted the Freemen's Constitution, making some concession to democratic demands.
The two constitutions were voted on late in the year, with the Freemen's Constitution being defeated in the legislature, largely by Dorr supporters, while the People's Convention version was overwhelmingly supported in a referendum in December. Although much of the support for the People's Convention constitution was from the newly-eligible voters, Dorr claimed that a majority of those eligible under the old constitution had supported it, making it legal.
In early 1842 both groups organized elections of their own, leading to the election of both Dorr and Samuel Ward King in April. King showed no signs of introducing the new contitution, and when matters came to a head he declared martial law. On May 4 the state legislature requested federal government troops to suppress the 'lawless assemblages.' President John Tyler decided to sit the issue out, replying that he believed that "the danger of domestic violence is hourly diminishing." Nevertheless Tyler, citing the U.S. Constitution, added that
- 'if resistance is made to the execution of the laws of Rhode-Island, by such force as the civil peace shall be unable to overcome, it will be the duty of this Government to enforce the constitutional guarantee--a guarantee given and adopted mutually by all the original States.'
Most of the state militiamen were newly enfranchised by the referendum and supported Dorr. The "Dorrites" led an unsuccessful attack against the Arsenal in Providence on May 19, 1842. Defenders of the Arsenal on the "Charterite" (those who supported the original charter) 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.
Charterite forces were sent to Woonsocket to defend the village and to cut off the retreat of the Dorrite forces. The Charterites fortified a house in preparation for an attack, but it never came and the Dorr Rebellion simply fell apart shortly thereafter. Governor King issued a warrant for Dorr's arrest June 8 with a reward of $1000, increased June 29 to $5000. Dorr fled the state.
The Charterites, finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause, called another convention. In September 1842 a session of the Rhode Island General Assemby met at Newport and framed a new state constitution which was ratified by the old limited electorate, proclaimed by Governor King on January 23, 1843, and took effect in May. The new constitution greatly liberalized voting requirements by extending suffrage to any free white man who could pay a poll tax of $1 and was accepted by both parties.
Dorr returned that year, was found guilty of treason against the state, and sentenced in 1844 to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned, and in 1845 Dorr, broken in health, was released. He was restored to his civil rights in 1851, and in 1854 the court judgment against him was set aside.
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