Rhode Island Historical Society
The Right to Vote
Rhode Island State History
Open Your Dorr!
If I say Rhode Island, what comes to your mind - a calm atmosphere? Maybe you even picture an island with one "road." When I hear the words Rhode Island, I think of a serene scene, where even a car accident could find a hard time bringing out the worst in people. I imagined that life in Rhode Island would be filled with trees and everyone would greet you as you walked down the street. Well, when Becky and I arrived in Rhode Island I was certainly not surprised. Yet long ago, underneath the trees that send you blessings in the form of falling leaves, there was trouble a brewin'.
The period was 1825-1840, and this seemingly restful tiny state had a bit of a problem that needed to be fixed. At the time, Rhode Island was still operating under a royal charter from the year 1663, even though the Revolutionary War had already been won and the US was no longer a British colony. The royal charter differed considerably from the present-day US Constitution: it did not allow for a separation of powers, nor for a method to reapportion seats in the legislature, or even a Bill of Rights, and it could not be amended. Enter a rebel, someone who had a noble cause and was willing to fight for what he believed even if most people still thought the world was flat - his name was Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Thomas Dorr came from a wealthy family and eventually entered the law profession. According to the custom of that time, a lawyer's primary function was to manipulate the law to the advantage of his client. Dorr had plans to change that game altogether. This strong-spirited man was not in agreement with the Rhode Island charter, nor was he in agreement with the requirement that a person must hold $134 worth of land in order to vote. This situation forced Dorr to take action.
On July 5, 1841 the 15 month-old Rhode Island Suffrage Association (RISA), without the permission of the Rhode Island government, called a convention in which they drafted the "People's Constitution" calling for significant changes to the current system of government and to the restrictions on voting, or suffrage, for white males. Dorr and his followers, the "Dorrites," proposed that all white men be eligible to vote regardless of financial status as long as they were residents of Rhode Island for at least one year. Dorr, who was the primary author of this document, also boldly called for term limits for high public offices such as mayor and councilman. To turn the heat up even more, the RISA required that people seeking public office that also wanted to vote in elections, had to pay their taxes. This dude was on fire. Don't you love it?
Just when you think he's done, he turns that stove up a bit higher. Of course no one in power wanted to hear any of these radical changes, and they completely ignored the Dorrite movement. Dorr was undeterred by his critics, and marched with 60 of his followers to the local armory and easily seized it. By this time news of Dorr and his movement had spread. The government felt threatened by this sudden turn of events, and prepared to shut the Dorrites down by offering a $1,000 reward for this capture. Gosh darnit! Why is it that the most progressive thinkers are always condemned? Dorr was captured and sentenced to life in jail, and it appeared that the government won. Well. . . not actually, it turned out that the public considered Dorr to be a martyr while being held captive in jail. Therefore, due to public pressure, he was released in less than a year.
What can we learn from this my friends? Why should you care? Dorr is an "old dead guy" as one student that I visited so aptly stated. However, it is through the efforts of trailblazers like Dorr that we have the freedoms and stable system of government that we enjoy today. Do you remember those ten little friends at the beginning of the U.S. Constitution called the Bill of Rights? Perhaps we would not even have freedom of speech had it not been for Dorr. One Supreme Court Judge of that time period, Justice Duffree, said of Dorr: "the American Revolution has been fought, there is no more need for revolution." What do you think? Is there need for more revolution, not necessarily violent revolution, but a cause that will bring progressive change? Are you happy with the way things are around you, and the world? If you are, then what happens when we become complacent and adopt the thinking of people like Justice Duffree? I deem it to be sufficiently dangerous. So, Malissa in Mrs. Carridis' class this one is for you. Keep circulating that petition to decrease violence in television. Change is waiting for you - just open the "Dorr!"
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