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Review of Erik J. Chaput's "The People's Martyr"

I live in the land of Thomas Dorr, and every speech or lecture that I have ever heard about Dorr and his 1842 Rebellion has been filled with praise and admiration for the man and his cause. Such filiopietism will not be so easy once one has read Erik Chaput’s biography of Thomas Wilson Dorr:  Chaput, a historian who teaches at the Lawrenceville School and Providence College’s College of Continuing Education, has knocked off Dorr’s halo and seriously tarnished his shining armor.

The standard story is of Dorr’s determined fight for reform in Rhode Island, especially the effort to replace Rhode Island’s obsolete charter of government (the last surviving colonial charter for any state) with a constitution that would enfranchise the great majority of men and fairly reapportion the Rhode Island General Assembly. He is depicted as an idealistic patrician champion of the workingman, who favored free public education, the end of imprisonment for debt, banking reform and regulation, and the enfranchisement of African-Americans. And all of that was true at one time. However, the full story of Dorr’s life shows a man whose idealism led him to dark places and unworthy conclusions. Even the central portion of the book, which deals with the coming of the Dorr Rebellion, the rebellion itself, and the immediate aftermath, where Dorr appears most admirable, shows that Dorr was blind to reality and practicality.

This is no superficial book:  it is based on wide and deep research into archives; Dorr’s writings, correspondence and diaries; newspapers and political tracts; and court records and cases. One of its great strengths is that it shows why the Dorr Rebellion was more than a tempest in Rhode Island’s teapot. It had national implications and repercussions, influencing sectional politics, the controversy over slavery, and political party development in the 1840s and 1850s. Chaput demonstrates that events in Rhode Island were monitored and viewed nationally with respect to the constitutional issues of Dorr’s Rebellion, particularly the “Rhode Island Question.” This focused on the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty—the belief that “the people” had the right to make and unmake governments as they saw fit. But how would they go about replacing a government?  Chaput describes the deep concern about the “Rhode Island Question” felt by President John Tyler, the U.S. Congress, and the federal courts. The question of whether a state could secede from the Union was an ongoing debate. Eventually  the issues raised in Rhode Island reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared that such issues were political, not legal, issues, and not to be resolved by a federal court. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote in his majority opinion that “the people’s sovereignty was not a question for judges to handle.” (200)

 Dorr and the suffrage movement in Rhode Island looked back to the Revolutionary era, which saw the old governments being overthrown and replaced by direct action. They felt that they had history and the Founding Fathers on their side and that the Constitution guaranteed the right to a truly representative government, and the right of the people to change it if it was not. After years of trying and failing to get the entrenched powers to write a state constitution and provide for fair apportionment and expanded suffrage, the Rhode Island suffrage movement, led by Dorr, convened a People’s Convention, wrote the People’s Constitution (which was overwhelmingly approved by the voters, 13,944 to 52), held elections under the aegis of that constitution, and elected Dorr as governor. The sitting legal government refused to recognize these actions and enacted drastic laws to crush the People’s government. This provoked Dorr to attempt to overthrow the Charter government by force. The effort was a comic-opera failure that alienated a substantial portion of his support and produced near-hysteria in his opponents. The rebels were crushed and Dorr himself was sentenced in May 1844 to life in prison in solitary confinement.  His imprisonment became a political cause, even on the national scene, and he was released after serving one year. Never strong, Dorr’s health deteriorated during his prison term.  He lived less than ten more years, dying on December 27, 1854.  He was only 49 years old.

The man Chaput shows us in that last decade was anything but heroic or admirable. One of the great ironies of Dorr’s life was that his concept of popular sovereignty – the right of the people to choose their government -- morphed into the popular sovereignty of Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, where the local people could choose whether to be a slave state. It became a tool for the expansion of slavery. Dorr defended that right  even when it went wrong and prostituted himself to the cause of the Democratic Party in the 1850s. Dorr had opposed the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, and he urged every Democrat to oppose it. Now he came to argue that the “Slave Power” was just an idea promoted by the abolitionists to stir up sectional controversy, and he became wholly opposed to the abolitionists, with whom he had once been allied. He argued that Congress had no power to interfere with the spread of slavery into the territories or even to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He even concluded that that the mass of slaves in the southern states were better off than those living in Africa and that the slaves had been brought over to serve a “better race.”

Dorr emerges by the end of Chaput’s biography as a gravely flawed figure, a man who betrayed his own reform efforts and who ended up as a Democratic hack politician, promoting the party’s ideology of territorial expansionism and the extension of slavery. In 1841-1842 Dorr had hoped for federal intervention on his side, but by the late 1840s he opposed federal intervention in the slavery issue with regard to the western territories. Popular sovereignty in the territories became part of the compromise to hold the Democratic Party together, and Dorr treated this compromise almost like a “religious faith” and the Democratic Party “akin to a church.” (208)  Dorr’s negrophobia and defense of the expansion of slavery seems all the more dramatic when the reader is reminded that Dorr once was on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. Chaput concludes by saying that by the late 1840s “Dorr invented a new history for himself that completely left out his association with the northern abolitionist movement.” (206). It was almost as if his career as a reformer no longer counted. He became an ardent supporter of Franklin Pierce, a dough-face Northern Democrat who sided with the slave-holding wing of the party. Loyalty to the Democratic Party trumped everything for Thomas Dorr. 

This book deals with other aspects of interest, including the place of African Americans in the conflict in Rhode Island, the sturdy support of women for Dorr’s cause, the tangled nature of Rhode Island politics, the support generated in neighboring states for Dorr, and the Congressional debates about the situation. But its most surprising aspect is the unvarnished portrait of one of Rhode Island’s most romanticized figures.