The Dorr Rebellion

The Dorr Rebellion of 1841-42 was more a war of words than weapons. Some accounts call it a rebellion, others, a war. Frederick Douglass called it the “Dorr excitement.” Writers in the 19th century were less than praiseworthy: Samuel Kettle, or Sampson Short-and-fat, as he called himself, poked fun at Rhode Islanders’ tendency to drop “r”s: his book on the 1842 conflict is entitled “Daw’s Doings, or, The History of the Late War in the Plantations” (1845). Another opponent dismissed it as a “tempest in a teapot,” while a twenty-first century historian lauded it as “the most important single event in Rhode Island history.” What about this particular conflict elicited such varied responses?

To be sure, the Dorr Rebellion was rather unusual: for a few brief weeks in 1842, Rhode Island, the smallest state, had not one but two governors, Thomas Wilson Dorr and Samuel Ward King, as well as two legislative assemblies. An attempted attack on the state arsenal on Providence’s West Side went afoul thanks to an untrusty cannon. And what would have been a glorious takeover of the State House by a newly elected rogue government ended in disappointment when they discovered the doors were locked.

But the events of 1841-1842 deserve more than a chronology of might-have-beens and military failures. To get a better sense of the Dorr Rebellion’s significance and what it meant to those on the front lines, this tour will explore first-person accounts from the period. We’ll hear from a soldier who marched to Chepachet and back, in a weekend. We’ll learn how one Providence citizen with some well-positioned storefront windows publicized his views on the ensuing conflict whether passers-by liked it or not. And we’ll hear the perspective of a young Black minister who wrote a strongly worded protest against the exclusion of Black men in the fight for the right to vote.

The Dorr Rebellion - Context

Rhode Islanders were pretty pleased with their royal charter in 1663, which granted them freedom from religious persecution. But even a beloved antique can lose its luster eventually, and so by the 19th century, when Rhode Island still operated under…

Thomas Wilson Dorr

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…

Catherine R. Williams

A crowd of 1,500 had gathered in Millville on a late fall day in 1842 to show their support for their exiled hero, Thomas Wilson Dorr. One of the most well-known women in the crowd was Catherine R. (Arnold) Williams (1790-1872), who, despite some…

William M. Rodman

“Infantry! To the Rescue!” shouted a lieutenant as the militia prepared to overtake the rebels at a tavern in Chepachet, wrote William M. Rodman in 1842. Rodman (1814-1868), a merchant tailor with a shop on Westminster Street, served as Master…

Frederick Douglass

“The public mind was awake” in Rhode Island, wrote Frederick Douglass (1817?-1895), “and one class of its people at least was ready to work with us to the extent of seeking to defeat the proposed constitution,” which would disenfranchise…

Alexander Crummell

“We claim . . . that to deprive the colored people of this State of the immunities of citizenship, on account of the color of the skin, (a matter over which they have no control), is anti-republican; and against such a procedure we enter our solemn…

Ann Parlin

A strange-smelling package arrived at the residence where Thomas Wilson Dorr was staying during his exile in 1842. He opened the box to find the following: “one prime codfish weighing 15 lbs., 2 mackerell [sic], 1 peck of clams, and a few…

Abraham Herman Stillwell

“While there is life, let us act. Let not the damning sin of his murder rest upon us . . . Rhode Islanders, Americans! Have you thought of this? Are you prepared for this? Will you permit this?” This rallying cry graced the windows of a bookstore…

John Brown Francis

While Samuel Ward King, as Rhode Island’s other governor, was Dorr’s most obvious rival, his opponents were many. One of these opponents, John Brown Francis, had himself served as governor of Rhode Island a decade before King and Dorr. Francis,…

Female Supporters Express Their Gratitude

While the Dorr Rebellion is of course centered in Rhode Island, the conflict became national news, and leaders across the country took sides. One such leader, Connecticut Governor Chauncey Cleveland, a Democrat, was a known supporter of Thomas Wilson…
This tour was supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Harbor Foundation.