Thomas Wilson Dorr

son of Sullivan and Lydia Dorr,
born in Providence, Nov. 5, 1805,
died Dec. 27, 1854

Thomas Wilson Dorr was born in Providence, Rhode Island on November 5, 1805. After studying law under Chancellor Kent in New York he was admitted to the bar in 1827 and practiced in Providence. Although born of a wealthy Whig family, he became leader of the popular movement for universal manhood suffrage, and was at the forefront of a campaign to establish a new, fairer state constitution.

Rhode Island, still governed under the colonial charter of 1663, restricted the vote to men owning $134 in land. Thus, most of the townspeople (about 60%), whose numbers had greatly increased with the growth of industry, were disenfranchised.

Dorr's Gravestone at Swan Point Cemetery
Because earlier moderate efforts at change (beginning as early as 1817) had been virtually ignored by the General Assembly, the reformers of 1840-1843 decided to bypass the legislature and convene a People's Convention. Thomas Wilson Dorr assumed the leadership of the movement in late 1841 and became the principal draftsman of the progressive People's Constitution, which was ratified in a popular referendum in December 1841. Dorr was elected governor under this document in April 1842.

The reformers were resisted by a "Law and Order'' coalition of Whigs and rural Democrats, who returned incumbent Governor Samuel Ward King to office in a separate election and then used force and intimidation to prevent the implementation of the People's Constitution. When Dorr responded in kind by unsuccessfully attempting to seize the state arsenal in Providence on May 18, 1842, most of his followers deserted the cause, and Dorr fled into exile. When he returned in late June to reconvene his so-called People's Legislature in Chepachet, a Law and Order army of twenty-five hundred marched to Glocester and sent the People's Governor into exile a second time. King declared martial law, many Dorrites were arrested, and the leader himself was indicted for high treason.

Minor armed clashes and demonstrations ensued and caused much excitement. The conservatives, finally convinced of the strength of Dorr's cause, called yet another convention. A new constitution, greatly liberalizing voting requirements, was accepted by both parties.

Following the new constitution's approval by the people in 1843, a disillusioned Dorr returned from his New Hampshire rufuge in October 1843 to surrender to local authorities. Immediately arrested and jailed until February 1844, Dorr was prosecuted for treason against the state. In a trial of less than two weeks, he was found guilty by a jury composed entirely of political opponents and sentenced to hard labor in solitary confinement for life.

The harshness of the sentence was widely condemned and in 1845 Governor Charles Jackson authorized his release. Dorr, broken in health, was released after serving one year. A Democratic General Assembly restored Dorr's civil and political rights in 1851 and in 1854 reversed the treason conviction. These gestures did little to cheer the vanquished reformer, whose spirit and health were broken. Disillusioned, he died in December 1854 in the midst of a local Know-Nothing campaign directed against immigrant Irish attemps to secure the vote. He was buried at Swan Point Cemetery.

Plaque at Dorr's Gravesite

Hutchinson Encyclopedia
RI History


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