Chaput Explores Dorr’s Rebellion and Legacy
This past Sunday, January 24, History Teacher Dr. Erik Chaput H’20 delivered a virtual speech about Thomas Wilson Dorr and the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in an event sponsored by the Museum of Work and Culture and the Rhode Island Historical Society.
This past Sunday, January 24, History Teacher Dr. Erik Chaput H’20 delivered a virtual speech about Thomas Wilson Dorr and the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in an event sponsored by the Museum of Work and Culture and the Rhode Island Historical Society. According to Chaput, the rebellion has particular historical significance because its story was one of the first times “a role for the people…as a check on the unconstitutional acts of government” was introduced.
Chaput opened by introducing Dorr’s early life, noting his privileged upbringing attending Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard University, and Columbia Law School. Despite his upbringing, however, due to his radical views, the elite of Providence, Rhode Island viewed him as “a sanctimonious, deluded demagogue, hellbent on destruction.” By the spring of 1842, their fears had come true: Dorr had been elected governor under a new “People’s Constitution,” beginning the Dorr Rebellion.
Chaput then continued by explaining the conditions that sparked the rebellion, sharing that Rhode Island was still operating on an outdated colonial charter from 1663 that disenfranchised a significant majority of the state’s population and gave outsized influence to rural areas, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction.
According to Chaput, “Thomas Dorr’s ideology drew directly from Rhode Island’s revolutionary history.” In fact, when Rhode Island ratified the Constitution, it sent back 18 Amendments, including one stating that “the powers of government may be resumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary.” These ideas emboldened Dorr and the Rhode Island Suffrage Association to write their own state constitution that would expand voting rights and then hold meetings and protests to promote its adoption.
Next, Chaput explained how Dorr’s actions culminated in April 1842 when Rhode Island found itself ruled by two governments: one led by him claiming legitimacy based on his “People’s Constitution” and another led by Governor Samuel Ward King under the colonial charter; Dorr’s proposal was far more popular, with one plebiscite approving his constitution 14,000 votes to 52.
Chaput emphasized that King’s government was not ready to give up its power. At first, it attempted to appeal to the federal government in Washington, D.C., but was largely ignored. Soon afterwards, it adopted the mantle of the “Law and Order Party,” and adopted what Chaput described as a “draconian statute which labelled all supporters of the People’s Constitution traitors to the state” in the hopes of deterring Dorr and his allies.
Tensions continued to rise throughout the next month until eventually, on the night of May 17, 1842, Dorr’s “quasi-army” attempted to take over a military arsenal in Providence. According to Chaput, at 2:00 AM that morning, “alarm bells and the cry of fire awoke Providence’s sleepy inhabitants,” signaling the beginning of the siege. Dorr’s men attempted to use two stolen cannons to enter the arsenal but failed due to wet fuses. Once additional reinforcements were called to Providence, Chaput described how Dorr was forced to flee the city.
Dorr returned to Rhode Island on October 31, 1843, when he was promptly arrested and convicted of treason against the state, becoming the first person in American history to have done so. During the 1844 Presidential Election, however, Chaput explained how “his time in prison became a rallying cry,” to the point where the Democratic ticket was described as “Polk, Dallas, Dorr,” in reference to the President and Vice President. Dorr was finally released in 1845, living privately until his death in 1854.
Chaput concluded by reflecting on the key lessons of the Dorr Rebellion, saying, “In the Dorr Rebellion, you see the legacy of the American Revolution playing out again in the Antebellum Period. There were hot-button issues of democracy, race, gender, and nativism.” These all came together in an event that showed the power of the people as arbiters of the Constitution—soon after, in the Spring of 1843, Rhode Island adopted a new state constitution that enfranchised the entire natural-born male population, including nonwhites, marking the success of the rebellion.
On being invited to give this talk, Chaput said, “The Rhode Island Historical Society has always been very supportive of my work. I was absolutely honored when they reached out to me to deliver a lecture to [its] members, especially in these trying times.”