"A Tempest in New England" A Talk by Dr. Erik J. Chaput

Review by Kara Wilson

Dr. Erik J. Chaput, who recently received his doctorate in early American History from Syracuse University, gave a very interesting talk on May 24, 2012, at the Worcester Historical Museum on the little-known topic of the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island. This event was the result of a collaboration between WWHP, the League of Women Voters, and the Worcester Historical Museum. Introductory remarks were made by William Wallace, Executive Director of WHM, Lee Bona, President of the League of Women Voters, and Heather-Lyn Haley, President of WWHP, who introduced Dr. Chaput.

Dr. Chaput began by thanking Lynne McKenney Lydick, stating, “Her enthusiasm for Abby Kelley Foster matches my enthusiasm for Thomas Wilson Dorr.” He then launched into “the drama” - a newspaper article about the Dorr Rebellion, entitled “A Horrible Plot”. Thomas Wilson Dorr, who claimed to be the unofficial governor of Rhode Island (although the actual governor was Samuel Ward King), was plotting a raid on an arsenal in Providence. Dorr devoted himself to public service. He was concerned that the United States was still operating under a colonial charter in the 1840s. Many prominent people in Providence thought that Dorr was dangerous, particularly after May 17, 1842, when Dorr tried to capture the arsenal. People feared that he next would try to take over nearby Brown University and that Dorr’s actions wouldn’t lead to reform, but rather to violence and social chaos. Despite pleas from his family, Dorr refused to compromise with government officials—“I will not compromise the people’s rights.”

According to Dr. Chaput, origins of this sort of military stand-off went back a long way in Rhode Island, as exemplified through the state charter, which wouldn’t let Irish immigrants own land or serve in government. Ironically, Dorr was born to the wealthiest family in Rhode Island, so it’s interesting that he later became the champion of working class, disenfranchised immigrants. Dorr received the finest education (enrolling in Harvard at age 13) and then becoming a lawyer, which led him to visit the American south, both to get a better understanding of slavery and to try to find a cure for his stomach ailments and rheumatism. In 1833, Dorr returned to Providence, where he became the prosecutor in the controversial trial of Dr. Francis Leach.

Even though Dorr lost the trial, he skyrocketed to fame and got involved in politics, which led to educational reform, bank reform, suffrage, abolitionism, and prison reform. Dorr unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1837 and 1839, representing the Whig Party, and ended up staying in RI, where he got involved in suffrage for white male immigrants, as well as getting rid of the colonial charter and writing a new constitution for RI.

The presidential election of 1840 led to Dorr’s decision to work for voting rights for white male immigrants because only 40% of RI’s population was allowed to vote. Dorr was a strong abolitionist and agreed to bring a petition to the People’s Convention, which is what he called the RI Constitutional Convention. This petition was signed by 5 prominent members of the black community, insisting on freedom and equality. Dorr tried to champion black rights in the RI Constitution, but ultimately failed, which caused abolitionists to descend upon Rhode Island after an appeal by Lydia Maria Child. Some of these abolitionists included Abby Kelley Foster, Stephen Foster, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Frederick Douglass. Abby Kelley Foster was furious that the People’s Convention was not open to African Americans, which caused her to write letters and make speeches against the People’s Convention. Ultimately, the abolitionists failed and the People’s Constitution was passed. Refusing to give up, Dorr tried to get support of a constitution that championed black rights by visiting President Tyler in Washington, DC. However, Tyler was a slave owner and did not support Dorr, fearing a slave revolt. By 1842, even those involved in national politics who sympathized with Dorr would not support him because they wanted the southern vote. This set the stage for the desperation which caused Dorr to plot his attack on the arsenal in Providence on May 17, 1842. Immediately following the raid, Dorr fled RI but eventually returned and was the first man to be convicted of treason, resulting in imprisonment for one year. His only consistent supporters during this time were women, for whom Dorr painted hand fans while he was in prison. After his release, Dorr’s already fragile health was ruined, and he lived at his parents’ home for the rest of his life. He wrote many letters in support of NH Governor Franklin Pierce and was influential in getting Pierce elected President. Dorr died of severe rheumatism at age 54.

Dr. Chaput’s talk was both informative and engaging. It is clear how passionate he is about the topic of Thomas Wilson Dorr and the 1842 Dorr Rebellion. Dr. Chaput’s dissertation of the Dorr Rebellion was the first full-scale history of this topic in nearly four decades and he is currently expanding the dissertation into a book.  

Published Date: 
September 19, 2012