Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James
Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton
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DORR, Thomas Wilson, politician, born in Providence. R. I., 5 November 1805; died there, 27 December 1854. His father, Sullivan Dorr, was a successful manufacturer. Thomas was educated at Phillips Exeter academy and at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1823. He then studied law in New York in the office of Chancellor Kent, was admitted to the bar, and began practice in his native City. He was a member of the assembly in 1833'7, being elected at first as a Federalist, but becoming a Democrat in the last-named year. In 1836 he introduced and carried through the legislature an important bill curtailing the powers of the banks in the state. At this time the government of the state was based on a charter granted by Charles II. in 1663. The suffrage was limited to possessors of real estate to the amount of $134 and to their eldest sons, and therefore only about one third of the citizens were entitled to vote. The representation in the legislature was also unfairly distributed, Newport, for instance, with 8,000 inhabitants, having six members, while Providence, with 23,000, had only four.
Mr. Dorr exerted himself in the assembly for the adoption of a more liberal constitution, but his movement obtained only seven out of seventy votes. He finally resorted to popular agitation, and in the latter part of 1840 a "suffrage party" was organized, which, at a mass meeting held in Providence on 5 July 1841, authorized the calling of a state constitutional convention. Delegates were elected on 28 August and the convention met at Providence on 4 October and framed a constitution, which was submitted to the people of the state on 2% 28, and 29 December when, as was asserted, about 14,000 votes were cast in its favor, being a majority of the adult male citizens of the state. It was also claimed that the constitution was adopted by a majority of the legal voters, or those entitled to suffrage under the charter. Meanwhile the legislature, on 6 February 1841, had also called a constitutional convention, and delegates elected in accordance with the call met in November but adjourned to February 1842, when they agreed upon a constitution, which was submitted to the people on 21, 22, and 23 March and rejected. On 18 April 1842, an election was held under the "suffrage" constitution, by which Mr. Dorr, who had been the leader in the movement, was chosen governor, and a legislature was elected consisting exclusively of his supporters. An election was also held under the old charter, which resulted in the choice of Samuel W. King as governor. Both governments organized in Newport on 3 May 1842, and there was an appeal to arms. Governor King proclaimed martial law, called out the militia, and asked aid from the National government, which recognized him as the legal governor.
On 18 May an attempt was made by an armed party of "suffragists" to seize the Providence arsenal, which was thwarted by the appearance of the military under Governor King. Mr. Dorr, by request of his adherents, then went to Washington to try and gain the support of the Federal government, and on his return was assured that the people were ready to fight for their rights. On 25 June a demonstration in his favor was made at Chepachet, ten miles from Providence; but only 300 of Dorr's party were present, and, as nearly ten times their number were opposed to them, Dorr ordered them to disperse, and quiet was restored by 28 June. In this same month the legislature issued another call for a convention, which met at Providence in September adjourned to East Greenwich, and on 5 November adopted the present state constitution, doing away with most of the objectionable features of the old charter. This was ratified by the people almost unanimously. The affair thus terminated is known as "Dorr's rebellion." Dorr fled to Connecticut. and afterward to New Hampshire. A reward of $4,000 had been offered by the state authorities for his apprehension, and on his return to Rhode Island he was arrested, tried for high treason, and on 25 June 1844, sentenced to imprisonment for life. He was released in 1847 under a general amnesty act, and in 1851 restored to his civil rights. In 1854 an act to reverse judgment in his case was passed by the legislature, but declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. See "Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr," by Dan King (Boston, 1859).
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