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Thomas Wilson Dorr

Thomas Wilson Dorr
16th Governor of Rhode Island
In office
May 1, 1842 – January 23, 1843
Along with Samuel Ward King
Lieutenant Byron Diman
Preceded by Samuel Ward King
Succeeded by Samuel Ward King
Personal details
Born November 5, 1805
Providence, Rhode Island
Died December 27, 1854 (aged 49)
Resting place Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island

Thomas Wilson Dorr (November 5, 1805 – December 27, 1854), was American politician and reformer, best known for leading the Dorr Rebellion.

He was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of Sullivan and Lydia (Allen) Dorr. His father was a prosperous manufacturer and co-owner of Bernon Mill Village. Dorr's family occupied a good social position. Thomas Dorr never married, but two of his sisters wed prominent men and the son of one of them married a daughter of John Lothrop Motley. Dorr was no plebeian when he led the cause of the unenfranchised classes. As a boy, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. He graduated from Harvard College in 1823, and then went to New York City, where he studied law under Chancellor James Kent and Vice-Chancellor William McCoun. He was admitted to the bar in 1827 and returned to Providence to practice. He began his political career as a representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1834.


  • Background 1
  • Suffrage referendum 2
    • Constitutional Convention called 2.1
  • Governor Dorr 3
    • Governor in exile 3.1
  • Aftermath 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


In the half-century following the American Revolution efforts were made to expand the number of residents eligible to vote. In Rhode Island such attempts were made at intervals from 1797 to 1834, but had invariably been obstructed by the government. In 1834 a convention met at Providence to consider the matter again, and Dorr was a member of the committee which drew up an address to the people. All efforts at reform, however, were once more blocked by the legislature. By 1841 Rhode Island was almost the only state which had not adopted universal suffrage for white males. It was also the only state which had not adopted a written constitution, and the old colonial charter, under which the state was ruled, was outdated. Under that document the original grantees had had the sole right to decide who should have a voice in the management of public affairs, and they had decreed the possession of a moderate landed estate as a qualification for the franchise. By 1840 this ancient requirement meant that over half the adult male population did not have the right to vote, and about nineteen towns, having a total population of only 3,500 voters, returned over half the legislature, so that less than 1,800 voters could decide the future of a state where 108,000 persons lived. Moreover, no person who did not own real estate could bring suit for recovery of debt or obtain redress for personal injury unless a freeholder endorsed his writ. Many had become landless with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and their numbers were increasing with immigration from Ireland.

Suffrage referendum

Illustrated broadside from the Library of Congress, entitled "The four traitors, who most infamously sold themselves to the Dorrites for office and political power".

In 1840 the Rhode Island Suffrage Association was formed to address this increasingly unsatisfactory situation, and processions and popular meetings were held. Dorr took a leading part in the agitation. The legislature refused to remedy such grievances as were in its power, and the old charter did not provide any means of summoning a constitutional convention. A "People's Party", therefore, was formed, which held a convention, adopted a constitution, and submitted it to a vote of the people. There were approximately 14,000 ballots cast in favor of it, and less than 100 cast against it. Of those in favor, over 4,900 were qualified voters so that the proposed constitution was formally approved not only by the majority of the males over twenty-one but, it was alleged, even by a majority of the legal voters. The constitutional question was a delicate one, but the existing government refused to consider any of these acts as legal.

Constitutional Convention called

It had become sufficiently frightened, however, to call a constitutional convention itself and in turn submit a constitution to the people. The government's constitution was defeated by the narrow margin of 676 votes out of 16,702. The new constitution, though not giving Dorr and his followers all they had asked, did give them most of the substance, so their rejection of it may be seen as a tactical error. Had they not defeated it they might have had a practical victory. Feelings, however, had become very bitter, and the Dorrites had already put their constitution into effect by electing an entire state ticket with Dorr as governor.

Governor Dorr

In May 1842 there were two governments which had both held elections and were both claiming the allegiance of the people. The People's Party did not attempt to seize the state house or machinery of government. Both governors issued proclamations, and Governor Samuel Ward King of the "Law and Order" party appealed to Washington for Federal aid. Dorr then went to Washington to plead his cause before President John Tyler. There he received no encouragement, and he returned to Rhode Island.

Governor in exile

Meanwhile King had proclaimed martial law, offered a US$5,000 reward for the capture of Dorr, and made wholesale imprisonments of the latter's followers under the "Algerine Law". Many of Dorr's followers deserted him and he fled the state on May 18, 1842, after a bungled attack on the Providence arsenal (which Dorr's father and younger brother, partisans of the "Law and Order" faction, were helping defend) led to the rebellion's disintegration.

Grave of Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence

He returned briefly in June with a small band of New York volunteers, and assembled an armed force of his followers on Acote's Hill in Chepachet. The state militia was called out and marched on Chepachet. Realizing that they would be defeated if they engaged the militia, Dorr's followers dispersed. Dorr sought refuge in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.


Returning to Providence in October 1843, hoping the more liberal constitution now adopted would safeguard his liberty, Dorr was nonetheless arrested. King and the old government sought their revenge. Dorr was tried for treason against Rhode Island at Newport, a conservative stronghold, before the Rhode Island Supreme Court and sentenced to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. He was committed on June 27, 1844.

Public opinion finally made itself felt and in 1845 an Act of General Amnesty was passed and Dorr was released after serving twelve months of his term. In 1851 he was restored his civil rights, and in January 1854 the legislature passed an act annulling the verdict of the supreme court, but this the court decided was unconstitutional. Dorr's health had been broken, and after his release he lived in retirement until his death.

His work, however, bore fruit, for the old order had yielded at last, and in 1843 a third constitution had been drawn up and accepted by the people providing universal male suffrage but retaining the property qualification. Today, Rhode Island's state government recognizes the legitimacy of Dorr's efforts and includes Dorr in its list of governors.[1]


  1. ^ Rhode Island Governors. Retrieved on 2013-08-24.

Further reading

  • "Thomas Wilson Dorr". Dictionary of American Biography. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
  • Erik J. Chaput, The People's Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (University Press of Kansas, 2013)

External links

  • Thomas Wilson Dorr at Find a Grave
  • The Dorr Rebellion Project at the Phillips Memorial Library, Providence College
  • Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Race in Antebellum Rhode Island
  • The Letters of Thomas Wilson Dorr
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