Thomas Wilson Dorr

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Thomas Wilson Dorr
Thomas Wilson Dorr engraving.jpg
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(1805-11-05)November 5, 1805
Providence, Rhode Island
DiedDecember 27, 1854(1854-12-27) (aged 49)
Providence, Rhode Island
Resting place Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, Rhode Island
Signature Thomas Wilson Dorr signature.jpg

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

A reform movement is a type of social movement that aims to bring a social or political system closer to the community's ideal. A reform movement is distinguished from more radical social movements such as revolutionary movements which reject those old ideals in the ideas are often grounded in liberalism, although they may be rooted in socialist or religious concepts. Some rely on personal transformation; others rely on small collectives, such as Mahatma Gandhi's spinning wheel and the self-sustaining village economy, as a mode of social change. Reactionary movements, which can arise against any of these, attempt to put things back the way they were before any successes the new reform movement(s) enjoyed, or to prevent any such successes.

Dorr Rebellion attempt to force broader democracy in the U.S. state of Rhode Island

The Dorr Rebellion (1841–1842) was an attempt by middle-class residents to force broader democracy in the U.S. state of Rhode Island, where a small rural elite was in control of government. It was led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, who mobilized the disenfranchised to demand changes to the state's electoral rules. The state was still using its 1663 colonial charter as a constitution; it required that voters own land. A later legislative rule required that a man be white and own $134 in property in order to vote.


Early life, family, and education

Thomas Wilson Dorr 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. He had sisters and other siblings.

Providence, Rhode Island capital of Rhode Island

Providence is the capital and most populous city of the U.S. state of Rhode Island and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a Reformed Baptist theologian and religious exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He named the area in honor of "God's merciful Providence" which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven for him and his followers. The city is situated at the mouth of the Providence River at the head of Narragansett Bay.

As a boy, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy. After graduating from Harvard College in 1823, he 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.

Phillips Exeter Academy American private college preparatory school

Phillips Exeter Academy is a coeducational independent school for boarding and day students in grades 9 through 12, and offers a postgraduate program. Located in Exeter, New Hampshire, it is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. Exeter is based on the Harkness education system, a conference format of student interaction with minimal teacher involvement. It has the largest endowment of any New England boarding school, which as of June 30, 2017, was valued at $1.25 billion. On January 25, 2019, William K. Rawson was appointed by the Academy's trustees as the 16th Principal Instructor. He is the 4th alumnus of Exeter to serve as Principal Instructor, after Gideon Lane Soule (1838–1873), Harlan Amen, and William Saltonstall (1946–1963).

Harvard College main undergraduate school of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Harvard College is the undergraduate liberal arts college of Harvard University. Founded in 1636 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and one of the most prestigious in the world.

The New York Court of Chancery was the highest court in the State of New York from 1701 to 1847.

Thomas Dorr never married, but two of his sisters wed prominent men. One of his nephews married a daughter of John Lothrop Motley. .

John Lothrop Motley American historian and diplomat

John Lothrop Motley was an American author, best known for his two popular histories The Rise of the Dutch Republic and The United Netherlands. He was also a diplomat, who helped to prevent European intervention on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War.


Dorr began his political career when elected as a representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1834. He became concerned about issues of the franchise: white men who were not allowed to vote because they did not own a certain value of real estate, and the dominance of rural interests in the state legislature, where seats were apportioned by geographic jurisdictions, with all towns being treated as equal.

Rhode Island General Assembly

The State of Rhode Island General Assembly is the state legislature of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. A bicameral body, it is composed of the lower Rhode Island House of Representatives with 75 representatives, and the upper Rhode Island Senate with 38 senators. Members are elected in the general election immediately preceding the beginning of the term or in special elections called to fill vacancies. There are no term limits for either chamber.

In the half-century following the American Revolution, some activists worked to expand the franchise, often by reducing property or similar requirements. In Rhode Island such attempts were made at intervals from 1797 to 1834, but had invariably been obstructed by the state government. In 1834 a convention met at the capital of Providence to consider the matter again. Dorr was a member of the committee which drew up an address to the people. All efforts at reform, however, were blocked again by the legislature, dominated by rural interests. Its apportionment resulted in an under-representation of the growing urban populations in the industrializing cities.

American Revolution Political upheaval, 1775–1783

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. They defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in alliance with France and others.

By 1841 Rhode Island was almost the only state that had not adopted universal suffrage for white males. It was the only state that did not adopt a new written constitution after the Revolution. It relied on its original 17th-century colonial charter. Under that document the original grantees had had the sole right to decide who should have a voice in the management of public affairs. As was customary at the time, they had decreed that land ownership, specifically of "a moderate landed estate," was required to vote.

By 1840 this requirement resulted in more than half the adult white male population being excluded from voting. Apportionment by geographic towns resulted in 19 seats, more than half of the legislature, being held by towns that had a total population of only 3,500 voters, when the state had a total of 108,000 residents, with many of them living in the larger cities.

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 residents had become landless with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and the number of residents who did not own real estate was increasing with a wave of 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". The Four Traitors.jpg
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. State legislator Thomas Wilson Dorr took a leading part in the agitation.

The legislature refused to remedy the grievances, and the old charter did not provide any means for citizens to convene 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. Approximately 14,000 ballots were cast in favor of it, and less than 100 cast against it. Of those in favor, more than 4,900 were qualified voters. The proposed state constitution was formally approved not only by the majority of the males over twenty-one but apparently by a majority of the voters considered legal under the charter.

The existing state government refused to consider any of these acts as legal.

Constitutional Convention called

The legislature called a constitutional convention itself and submitted a new constitution to the people. The government's constitution was defeated by the narrow margin of 676 votes out of 16,702. This new constitution provided for most of what Dorr and his followers had been seeking, and historians believe their rejection of it was a tactical error. Feelings 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 Thomas Wilson Dorr

In May 1842 two governments in Rhode Island had held elections and were 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, DC for Federal aid. Dorr went to Washington to plead his own 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. A bungled attack on the Providence arsenal (which his 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 Grave of RI Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr.jpg
Grave of Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence

Dorr 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 governor ordered the state militia out, which 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.


Dorr returned to Providence in October 1843, when he hoped the more liberal constitution that had been adopted would protect him, but he was 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; he was convicted and sentenced to solitary confinement at hard labor for life. He was committed on June 27, 1844.

The public was outraged about this sentence, and in 1845 the legislature passed an Act of General Amnesty; Dorr was released after serving twelve months of his term. In 1851 his civil rights were restored. In January 1854 the legislature passed an act annulling the verdict of the supreme court, but the state court ruled this act was unconstitutional. Dorr's health had been broken by his ordeal, and after his release he lived in retirement until his death.

His work, however, bore fruit: in 1843 a third constitution had been drafted and ratified by the people that provided universal male suffrage. Today, Rhode Island's state government recognizes the legitimacy of Dorr's efforts and includes Dorr in its list of governors. [1]

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  1. Rhode Island Governors. Retrieved on August 24, 2013.

Further reading