The Dorr Rebellion

One of the major developments in American history in the first half of the Nineteenth Century was the extension of the franchise to all adult white men.  By 1841, Rhode Island was the only state that had not removed the property requirement for voting by adult white men.  Years of frustration in failed attempts to remove the property requirement through legislation burst out into one of the more unusual rebellions in US history.  Led by Thomas W. Dorr, a so-called People’s Convention was held in October 1841 which drafted a new constitution for Rhode Island.  The convention had not been authorized by the Rhode Island legislature.  Opponents of Dorr and his followers in the state legislature drafted a new constitution for Rhode Island which they designated the Freeman’s Constitution.  This constitution made some concessions to broadening the franchise.  It was defeated in the legislature by followers of Dorr.

A statewide referendum called by Dorr approved the constitution which had been drafted by the People’s Convention.  In 1842 Rhode Island witnessed two sets of election with two competing legislatures and two governors: Thomas W. Dorr and Samuel W. King.

The Dorr forces attempted an attack on the arsenal in Providence on May 19, 1842 and were routed, most, including Dorr, fleeing the state.  The Rhode Island legislature approved a new Constitution which was approved by a referendum.  The new constitution extended the franchise to all adult white men who could pay a poll tax of $1.00.

In the case of Luther v. Borden, 48 US 1, the United States Supreme Court declined to rule on which of the competing Rhode Island governments had been the legitimate government, holding that such a decision was a political one and not subject to judicial determination:

Much of the argument on the part of the plaintiff turned upon political rights and political questions, upon which this court has been urged to express an opinion.  We decline doing so.  The high power has been conferred on this court of passing judgment upon the acts of the State sovereignties, and of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, and of determining whether they are beyond the limits of power marked out for them respectively by the Constitution of the United States.  This tribunal, therefore, should be the last to overstep the boundaries which limit its own jurisdiction.  And while it should always be ready to meet any question confided to it by the Constitution, it is equally its duty not to pass beyond its appropriate sphere of action, and to take care not to involve itself in discussions which properly belong to other forums.  No one, we believe, has ever doubted the proposition that, according to the institutions of this country, the sovereignty in every State resides in the people of the State, and that they may alter and change their form of government at their own pleasure.  But whether they have changed it or not by abolishing an old government and establishing a new one in its place is a question to be settled by the political power.  And when that power has decided, the courts are bound to take notice of its decision, and to follow it.

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