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Description: Dorr Rebellion Broadside Announcing the Ratification of the New Constitution

An important early document from a rebellion stemming from the increasing elitism of the upper class land owners, and their alienation from the working class in Rhode Island, circa 1842. A broadside for what was to become known as the "Dorr Rebellion", announcing the Convention of the Delegates of the People, legally assembled, to submit the new Constitution to the People for ratification or rejection. 7.5" x 12.5". Thomas Wilson Dorr, who later gave his name to the Rebellion of 1841-43, was at the time serving a life term in prison. The Dorr Rebellion is considered the most significant constitutional and political event in Rhode Island history. Its incredible legacy is described below.

While Rhode Island had been a refuge for free thinkers and religious dissidents since its founding in the seventeenth century, weakness in its political structure became apparent during the Industrial Revolution. Roger Williams had founded the Rhode Island Colony in 1636 after he was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views. Williams settled at the tip of Narragansett Bay near the Mashassuck River where the farmland was rich and fertile. He called the site Providence. The charter he received from King Charles II allowed Rhode Island "to hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty of religious concernments". Under the royal charter, only landowners could vote. Before the Industrial Revolution, when most people were employed as farmers, this was considered democratic. Yet as the Industrial Revolution moved large numbers of workers from the farm to the factory, a permanent landless--and therefore voteless--class developed. By 1829, 60% of the state's free white males were ineligible to vote. By 1841, Rhode Island was experiencing severe disfranchisement because suffrage under the state constitution was limited to male freeholders owning at least $134 of real property and their eldest sons, creating a state dominated by rural interests.

Dorr's Rebellion of 1842 was an extra legal attempt to achieve suffrage reform and create a new state constitution for Rhode Island. It was suppressed by force, but a new state constitution corrected the problems of disfranchisement and malapportionment that had provoked the uprising. The effect of this requirement created disparity which ramped up in the 1830s when the rapidly growing industrial cities were far outnumbered in the legislature by representatives of rural towns, to the annoyance of major businessmen and industrialists of the cities. The state legislature lagged in investing in infrastructure and other needs for urbanizing areas, and generally did not respond to urban needs.

The voting system maintained representation in the legislature by towns. Under this geographical-based system, the larger populations in cities were dramatically under-represented. Furthermore, because of the property requirement, few immigrants or factory workers could vote, despite their growing numbers in the state. In 1840 other states that had been receiving immigrants had a huge surge in turnout, but Rhode Island voting remained suppressed.  In 1841, a radicalized reformist group, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, drew up a new state constitution, called the People's Constitution, that ameliorated both problems.  This broadside circular announced the Convention of the Delegates of the People, legally assembled, to submit the new Constitution to the People for ratification or rejection.

"…Permit us, your friends and fellow citizens having with you, a common interest in prosperity, honor and peace of our State, to acquaint you, frankly, with our views in relation to the present crisis… the constitution , we repeat, was framed in the spirit of compromised … While it makes provision for a most liberal extension of the right of suffrage, and secures a substantial equality, in the distribution of power, in the House of Representatives, it protects, by the organization of the Senate, the minority from oppression, and it endows the Agricultural interest with the means of saving itself from utter prostration…

The proposed Constitution is in your hands …

The proposed Constitution, we are convinced, ought to be adopted, and adopted too by overwhelming majority…

The most strenuous efforts are making, and will be made, to defeat the Constitution. In order to counteract these efforts, every citizen, who values the welfare of the state and desires to maintain the supremacy of the laws, is bound to devote himself …

… Let not an illegal vote find its way into the ballot box! Let not a legal vote in its favor be lost!..."

The association then submitted it for ratification to the entire male electorate--the disfranchised as well as freeholders. Suffragists relied on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, especially its ideal of popular sovereignty. Concurrently, the so-called Freeholders' government drafted its own reformed constitution but submitted it only to freeholders for ratification. The People's Constitution was overwhelmingly (but extra legally) ratified, while voters rejected the Freeholders' document. The suffragists then held elections for a new state government, in which Thomas Wilson Dorr was elected governor. They installed a state legislature and hoped that the Freeholders' government would dissolve itself. Instead, it enacted repressive legislation and declared martial law to suppress what it considered an insurrection. President John Tyler declined to assist the Dorr government and covertly promised to back the Freeholders' government. The Freeholders crushed a minor effort to defend the Dorr government by force. Dorr himself was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment but was later pardoned. The victorious Freeholders then adopted a new constitution that conceded most of what the suffragists had demanded.

Perhaps of most interest is the various interpretations of the Dorr Rebellion, a subject which has been debated continually by historians. Mowry (1901) portrayed the Dorrites as irresponsible idealists who ignored the state's need for stability and order. Gettleman (1973) hailed it as an early working-class attempt to overthrow an elitist government. Dennison (1976) saw it as a legitimate expression of Republicanism in the United States, but concluded that politics changed little for Rhode Islanders after 1842 because the same elite groups ruled the state.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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