Thomas Wilson Dorr has been called an unlikely people’s hero in the Rebellion that bears his name. A well-educated lawyer, Dorr hailed from an upper-crust Rhode Island family. His father, Sullivan Dorr, amassed great wealth through his dealings in the China Trade, and Dorr’s mother, Lydia (Allen) Dorr, was the sister of the prominent textile manufacturer Zachariah Allen.
Thomas Wilson Dorr’s family aligned themselves with Samuel Ward King and the Charterites during the conflict of 1841-2. His parents even wrote to plead with him against running for governor under the People’s Constitution, but he was not dissuaded. When Dorr and his followers attempted to seize the Providence arsenal, Dorr’s father and uncle, Crawford Allen, were among the men on site to defend it. Ultimately Dorr was estranged from all in his family, apart from his mother.
Despite pressures from disapproving family members, verbal abuse from his opponents, and the disappointment of former allies changing sides, Dorr remained convinced of the righteousness of his cause. In August 1842, two months after the debacle at Chepachet, Dorr wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Williams Simons, editor of the Providence paper The Republican Herald:
“It is due to myself to say that although I am not insensible to the opinions of men, I feel conscious that I have done the duty which was assigned to me by the People of R. Island, and in this a source of satisfaction of what no hostility or malice can deprive me . . . my spirit is not broken by the burden of defeat & obloquy that has been cast upon me.”
Thomas Wilson Dorr would likely have been surprised, although hardly displeased, to learn that his legacy in Rhode Island lives on. While he was not able to secure King’s seat as governor in the Old State House on Benefit Street in 1842, Dorr’s likeness now stands outside the senate chamber of the Rhode Island State House on Smith Hill.
Note on Location: 109 Benefit Street was the home of Thomas Wilson Dorr.