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Rhode Island in the 1840s


The breaker in Rhode Island
The breaker in Rhode Island

Even after the American Revolution, Rhode Islanders chose to retain their cherished royal charter of 1663 as the new state’s basic law. Under the charter regime, the General Assembly decreed that only property-holding males were eligible to vote in Rhode Island. This meant that most industrial workers could not vote. As Providence and other industrial centers grew, a high proportion of Rhode Islanders were disenfranchised—that is, had no vote—and rural towns became greatly overrepresented in the legislature in proportion to their population.

In 1841 a prominent Providence lawyer, Thomas Wilson Dorr, joined a movement called the People’s Party that was working for universal manhood suffrage, legislative reapportionment, and other reforms. Dorr was the principal author of a new constitution that the party drew up at a popularly convened constitutional convention. This so-called People’s Constitution was overwhelmingly ratified by a plebiscite that the People’s Party organized.

About the same time, however, the state legislature also called for a constitutional convention, at which a more conservative document, the so-called Freemen’s Constitution, was drawn up. The legally framed Freemen’s Constitution was narrowly defeated by the state’s enfranchised voters. In April 1842 both the People’s Party and the charter government held elections for state officials. In May Dorr, who was elected governor in the People’s Party vote, was inaugurated at Providence, and Samuel Ward King, the winner of the regular election, was sworn in the next day at Newport, giving Rhode Island two rival state governments. When the charter government began to arrest Dorr’s supporters, the reformers resorted to armed force. Dorrites assaulted the Providence arsenal later that month, but couldn’t get their antiquated artillery to fire.

Martial law was declared in the state, and many of Dorr’s supporters were arrested, while Dorr fled the state. Although Dorr’s Rebellion was suppressed, it was obvious that some of the demands of his followers must be met. The state legislature called another constitutional convention in late 1842 and drafted a new constitution, which went into effect in May 1843. That document liberalized voting requirements and provided for some legislative reapportionment.

But urban areas remained underrepresented, and the new constitution contained the most anti-immigrant voting requirement in the country, discriminating against the growing population of Irish-Catholic and other foreign-born citizens. Native-born citizens who did not own property were allowed to vote in federal and statewide elections simply by paying a one-dollar “registry tax,” but a foreign-born citizen could only vote if he owned $134 worth of real property. Citizens who did not own property or pay taxes, whether they were foreign- or native-born, could not vote in local elections. "Rhode Island" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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