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Politics of Rhode Island

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Politics of Rhode Island

Since Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges) ran successfully as Republican reform candidates.

Rhode Island has comprehensive health insurance for low-income children, and a large social safety net. Many urban areas still have a high rate of children in poverty. Due to an influx of residents from Boston, Massachusetts, increasing housing costs have resulted in more homeless in Rhode Island.

Prominent Democrats include House Speaker William Murphy, Senate President Joseph Montalbano, Former Providence Mayor David Cicilline, Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, General Treasurer Frank T. Caprio, Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth H. Roberts. In recent years, former Speaker of the House John Harwood, State Senator John Celona, and State Senate President William Irons were forced to resign amid scandals.[1]


Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists (1776-1820)

Rhode Island declared independence from the British Empire on May 4, 1776, two months before the U.S. Declaration of Independence was ratified.[2] However, despite this eagerness for independence, Rhode Island was also a stronghold for Anti-Federalism through the Country Party, which was widely popular among rural areas of Rhode Island and dominated the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1786 to 1790. The Country Party's dominance prevented ratification of the Federalist U.S. Constitution, and the state had even refused to send any delegation to the 1787 Constitutional Convention that wrote it. Father of the Constitution James Madison described Rhode Island as ruled by "wickedness and folly" in which "All sense of character as well as of right have been obliterated." After the insurance of the inclusion of a bill of rights, however, support grew for the Constitution in Rhode Island. Rhode Island became the last of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution in 1790 by only 2 votes, after Gov. John Collins supported it and several remaining Anti-Federalists boycotted the ratifying convention.[3]

After ratification, many Anti-Federalists remained with the Country Party or joined Thomas Jefferson's Anti-Administration faction, which eventually became the Democratic-Republican Party. Rhode Island's first 2 governors after ratification (Anti-Federalist leader Arthur Fenner and Henry Smith) were both nominees of the Country Party.[4] Meanwhile, one of Rhode Island's first 2 Senators, Joseph Stanton, Jr., was a nominee of the Anti-Administration Party.[5]

Despite the Anti-Federalist views during the 1780s, the Federalist Party eventually became the dominant party in Rhode Island. Rhode Island gave its electoral votes in most Presidential elections to the Federalist candidate during this era. Meanwhile, Federalist Senator William Bradford became the 1st U.S. Senator from Rhode Island to serve as President pro tempore of the United States Senate during the 5th Congress.[6] While the Federalist Party is generally considered to have died after the War of 1812, Rhode Island still had Federalists in the U.S. Congress as late as 1820, and Federalist Governor William Jones was not defeated by a Democratic-Republican candidate until Nehemiah R. Knight was elected in 1816.[4]

Democratic-Republican Era (1820s)

In the 1820s, Rhode Island, like the rest of the union, was largely dominated by the Democratic-Republican Party. Knight, William C. Gibbs, and James Fenner (son of former Governor Arthur Fenner) were all elected Governors of Rhode Island during this time. After the party split into Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party and the opposition National Republican Party, Rhode Island was generally opposed to Jackson's policies and supportive of the Federalist-inspired policies of National Republican leaders John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, supporting the former in the hotly contested Presidential elections of 1824[7] and 1828.[8] Many of these "Anti-Jacksonians" or "Adams Men", such as Asher Robbins and former Governor Nehemiah R. Knight,[9][10] represented the state in Congress before the formation of the Whig Party in 1833.

Whig Era (1833-50)

Rhode Island Congressmen were almost exclusively Whigs during the 1830s and early 1840s. Whigs Lemuel H. Arnold, Elisha Harris, Henry B. Anthony, and William W. Hoppin were also Governors of Rhode Island during this time. However, Democrats John Brown Francis and William Sprague III served for most of the 1830s.[11] Rhode Island's electoral votes also backed the Presidential candidacies of Whig leaders William Henry Harrison in 1840,[12] Henry Clay in 1844,[13] and Zachary Taylor in 1848.[14]

Dorr Rebellion (1840-42)

In 1841, Rhode Island was the last state that required ownership of property to vote in its elections, as it was still governed by the provisions of its original colonial charter of 1663, which restricted voting rights to landowning white men and their eldest sons. About 60% of Rhode Island adult men were ineligible to vote due to these restrictions by 1840. Political activist Thomas Wilson Dorr was the leader of a group known as the Rhode Island Suffrage Association (or "Dorrites")[15] that attempted to amend or replace the charter with a new constitution extending suffrage to all white men, but efforts to do so consistently failed in the Rhode Island General Assembly.[16]

After failed attempts to change the system from within, the Dorrites held a convention for the newly formed "People's Party", which drafted a new constitution that enfranchised all white men after one year's residence.[17] Meanwhile, General Assembly members who supported the charter, known as "Charterites" or the "Law and Order Party", drafted a constitution that made concessions to the People's Party, but 2 referenda held later that year determined that a majority of voters approved of the People's Party constitution, but disapproved of the Law and Order Party's constitution by a narrow margin.[15]

However, Governor Samuel Ward King, a Charterite, refused to recognize the results of the referenda, resulting in the holding of two elections that April: one set up by the People's Party, which elected Dorr as Governor, and another set up by the Law and Order Party, which re-elected King.[15] King and Dorr essentially served as Governors concurrently after this election. King declared martial law and attempted to persuade U.S. President John Tyler to send federal soldiers to Rhode Island to resolve the issue, but Tyler, feeling that the threat of violence was "hourly diminishing", refused.[16] Without the threat of federal interference, Dorr's government mounted an attack upon the Providence Arsenal on May 19, 1842. Charterite defenders, including Dorr's own father and uncle, suppressed the attack and the Dorrites retreated to the village of Chepachet to hold another People's Convention. Charterites cut off the retreat in the city of Woonsocket, causing Dorr's government to fall.[17]

Despite their victory, the Charterite General Assembly ultimately drafted and adopted the current Rhode Island Constitution in September 1842, which extended voting to all free men (of any race) who owned property or could pay a $1 poll tax. Although the former members of the People's Party attempted to oppose the Law and Order Party's candidates in the 1843 elections, the Law and Order Party took all major offices in these elections, and their new constitution was adopted in May. Encouraged by the new constitution's expanded suffrage, Dorr returned to the state, but was captured by King and tried and convicted of treason. However, public protests resulted in Dorr's pardon by Governor James Fenner in 1845.[16]

Law and Order Party and Whig Party co-dominance (1840s)

After the Dorr Rebellion ended, the Law and Order Party shared power with the Whigs for the remainder of the 1840s, until the former dissolved and the latter fell from power in Rhode Island. The Law and Order Party's James Fenner was the first Governor elected under the Rhode Island Constitution. Fenner had previously served as Governor on two other occasions as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party. Byron Diman also represented the Law and Order Party as Governor.[18]

In 1843, Rhode Island was given a 2nd Congressional district. The Law and Order Party's Elisha R. Potter was the first Congressman from this district. The 2nd district also elected Benjamin Babock Thurston to Congress in 1847; Thurston was the first Democrat elected to Congress from Rhode Island.[19]

In the late 1840s and early 1850s, the nationally declining Whig Party became diminished in Rhode Island, while the Law and Order Party dissolved, and most of its members returned to their pre-Dorr Rebellion allegiances to the Whigs or Democrats.

Republican Era (1850s-1930s)

After the demise of the Rhode Island Whigs, the Know Nothing and Democratic Parties were briefly co-dominant parties in Rhode Island. From 1851 to 1853, Rhode Island had an all-Democrat set of executive offices for the first time, led by Governor Philip Allen. In the same year, Charles Tillinghast James became Rhode Island's first Democratic Senator. Meanwhile, Benjamin Babock Thurston returned to his Congressional seat as a Know-Nothing, and William W. Hoppin was Rhode Island's only Know-Nothing Governor in 1854, serving in the office until 1856.

In the late 1850s, however, much of the remaining Know-Nothings and Whigs nationally were absorbed by the Republican Party,[20] which would become the dominant party in Rhode Island until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Republican dominance in Rhode Island began with the elections of several Republicans to major offices in 1857, such as Governor Elisha Dyer,[21] and Sen. James F. Simmons.[22] The first 14 Republican Party Presidential candidates, beginning with John C. Frémont in 1856, won Rhode Island's electoral votes during this era.[23]

The Constitutional Union Party became strong in Rhode Island during the early 1860s. Across the country, many conservative former Whigs and Know-Nothings, unsatisfied with the secessionists in the national Democratic Party, became Unionists, and nominated Unionist candidates at their state conventions.[24] Both Rhode Island representatives to the 37th U.S. House of Representatives were Unionists.[19]

During the American Civil War, Rhode Island was the first state to respond to President Abraham Lincoln's 1861 request for troops from the individual Union states. Governor William Sprague IV (nephew of former Governor William Sprague III) believed that the war would be over rather quickly and easily in the Union's favor, and chose to lead the Rhode Island brigade to Virginia to oversee what he expected to be a Union victory.[25] There, he participated in the First Battle of Bull Run and, despite the Confederate victory, was offered a commission as Brigadier General, which he refused, opting to remain Governor of Rhode Island. Sprague went on to serve 2 six-year terms as a Senator from Rhode Island after retiring from the Governor's post in 1863.[25] Burnside also became a Governor of Rhode Island from 1866 to 1869, and then replaced Sprague in the U.S. Senate in 1875, serving there until his death in 1881.[26]

From 1863 to 1887, every Governor of and U.S. Congressman from Rhode Island was a member of the Republican Party.[18] During this time, Senator Henry B. Anthony served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate,[27] the 2nd Rhode Island Senator to do so, after William Bradford in 1797.[6] Also during this time, Governor Henry Lippitt became the first in a familial line of several prominent Rhode Island politicians, dating to current Governor Lincoln Chafee, and including one of Lippitt's sons, Sen. Henry F. Lippitt, who was a brother-in-law of U.S. President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.[28] Also, the administration of three-term Governor Alfred H. Littlefield officially established the current boundary line of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and authorized the establishment of the state's first industrial school for impoverished children, in an effort to update the state's education system to keep in time with manufacturing developments.[29]

In 1887, some Democratic power returned when prominent Democratic businessman [30] During Davis' first one-year term, a women's suffrage amendment to the State Constitution was passed by the state legislature but not accepted by the state's male voters in an April 6, 1887 referendum.[31] Also during Davis' first term, the current boundary line with Connecticut was established, revised election laws were passed which made voter fraud more difficult, and orphanages were regulated by the state. However, Davis was defeated in his 1888 and 1889 gubernatorial bids, but Davis returned to the governorship for another one-year term in 1890.[30] Another popular Democrat during Rhode Island's Republican Era was Lucius F.C. Garvin, a longtime General Assembly member from Cumberland and eventual Governor, serving 2 one-year terms. However, a Republican-controlled legislature prevented most of Garvin's reform-minded programs from passing.[32] Garvin was considered for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President in 1904.[33]

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was much controversy in the state political system surrounding Republican leader and lobbyist Charles R. Brayton, who generally supported the interests of Republican Senators Henry B. Anthony and Nelson W. Aldrich. As both a Civil War veteran and a member of the state's "economic elite", Brayton was easily supported by the majority of Rhode Islanders, and is credited with helping many candidates into office, including Sen. Aldrich, who would later become one of the most prominent U.S. Senators.[34] Brayton rose to political prominence in Rhode Island in the 1890s as a chairman of the Republican State Committee, and eventually as a member of the Republican National Committee. Brayton campaigned heavily for the passage of laws shifting gubernatorial powers, including almost all appointment powers, to the State Senate, which was reliably a Republican majority. The "Brayton Act" was a major hindrance to Democratic reformers such as Governor Garvin after its passage, and would continue to hinder gubernatorial power until Democrats gained a State Senate majority in 1935.[35] Brayton also had a political rivalry with James H. Higgins, another Democratic Governor during Rhode Island's Republican Era. Higgins greatly opposed Brayton's lobbying, claiming Brayton was paid by railroad and telephone companies to lobby their special interests.[36] Brayton did not deny this, but said that he never lobbied against the interests of the Republican Party to favor a corporation's interest.[37]

In 1912, President Taft's reelection campaign was the first Republican campaign to not receive Rhode Island's electoral votes, despite the fact that he was a 5th cousin of former Governor Royal C. Taft. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who won the election, was the first Democrat to receive Rhode Island's electoral votes since Franklin Pierce in 1852, before the founding of the Republican Party.

Also in 1912, the Republican ticket for executive offices, led by Aram J. Pothier, who was also the first Rhode Island Governor of foreign birth (born in Quebec), won the first 2-year executive terms, having previously served four 1-year terms.[38]

Upon the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, Republican Norman S. Case was Governor of Rhode Island. Although he was reelected in 1930, the Depression worsened and Republican popularity lessened, and Theodore F. Green summarily defeated Case in 1932. The Depression is generally cited as the primary reason for the fall of Republicans in Rhode Island, transitioning to a period of Democratic dominance which continues today.

Democratic Era (1930s-present)

In the 1932 and 1934 elections, Democrats officially swept Republicans out of power in the state. Theodore F. Green easily defeated Republican Governor Norman S. Case in the 1932 gubernatorial election.[39] Democrat Peter G. Gerry, who served 2 terms in the U.S. Senate before the Depression, reclaimed his former seat by defeating incumbent Republican Senator Felix Hebert.[40] In the State Senate elections in 1934, 2 seats were contested, both held by Republicans, but Democratic victories in these districts would create a Democratic Party majority in the Senate. Lt. Gov. Robert Quinn, assigned to preside over seating the newly elected State Senators, refused to seat the Republicans who had claimed re-election to those two seats. Green demanded a recount on January 1, 1935, and the recount determined that the Democratic candidates in both districts had won by narrow margins. This has become known as the "Bloodless Revolution", as Republicans have struggled to regain power in Rhode Island since.[41]

Republicans remained in some power throughout the 1930s, as Charles Risk served the 1st Congressional district in the 74th and 76th Congresses.[42] In 1938, many Republicans, led by gubernatorial candidate William Henry Vanderbilt III, was elected into office, including retaking control of both houses of the General Assembly.[41] However, in 1939, Vanderbilt's support was seriously weakened by a wire-tapping scandal involving a private detective he had hired to search for election fraud.[43] The scandal cost him his re-election chances, and many Republicans elected in 1938 were defeated by Democratic challengers in 1940;[44][45][46] Democrats also regained a majority in both houses of the General Assembly, and have not lost it since.[41]

Meanwhile, many prominent Rhode Island Democrats also became nationally prominent under Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. The most notable of these was former Governor Green, who successfully ran for Senate in 1936, and served there until 1960, finally retiring in ill health at age 93, the oldest Congressman in history at the time.[47] Green was known as "the President's man", as a strong supporter of Democratic Presidents, and one of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower's strongest Democratic supporters. Green was also a civil rights leader, working closely with then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to pass voting rights bills, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The state's largest airport is named T.F. Green Airport after him.

J. Howard McGrath, first a Governor after defeating incumbent Vanderbilt in 1940, also went on to serve for many years in a federal capacity. McGrath was appointed U.S. Solicitor General by Truman in October 1945, and served there for one year, before resigning to become a Senator in the 80th Congress, which had Republican majorities in both houses. However, he chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia at the beginning of the Democrat-ruled 81st Congress. McGrath was also chairman of the Democratic National Committee during this time, allowing for racial integration of the Democrats' national headquarters and successfully managing President Truman's 1948 reelection campaign. For this, McGrath was promoted to United States Attorney General, until his resignation in 1952, after refusing to be investigated after suspected corruption.[48][49]

Democratic Party

The Rhode Island Democratic Party is the affiliate of the Democratic Party in the state of Rhode Island. Edwin R. Pacheco is the chairman of the Party. For the past five decades, the Democratic Party has dominated politics in Rhode Island. The article further discusses the Democratic Party's dominance in Rhode Island politics as well as the elected officials, party leadership and staff, past election results, legislation, and also issue stance.

Moderate Party

The Moderate Party of Rhode Island is the third-largest contemporary political party in the U.S. state of Rhode Island, after the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The Moderate Party of Rhode Island gained official party status and ballot access via a federal lawsuit and the gathering of 34,000 signatures on August 18, 2009.[50]

Republican Party

The Rhode Island Republican Party is the affiliate of the United States Republican Party in Rhode Island. Mark Zaccaria is the Party Chairman; Pat Sweeney is the Executive Director.

The Republican Party was formed by former northern anti-slavery Whigs, Democrats, and other northern politicians.[51] The anti-slavery Republicans absorbed most of the American Party, Whigs, the Know-Nothings and Unionists by 1857.[52]

Minor parties

Constitution Party

Cool Moose Party

Green Party

Libertarian Party

Natural Law Party

Reform Party

Socialist Party

Defunct parties

Country Party

Federalist Party

Democratic-Republican Party

People's Party

Law and Order Party

Whig Party

Native American Party ("Know Nothings")

Constitutional Union Party ("Unionists")


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