The People's Martyr

Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion

Erik J. Chaput

In 1840s Rhode Island, the states seventeenth-century colonial charter remained in force and restricted suffrage to property owners, effectively disenfranchising 60 percent of potential voters. Thomas Wilson Dorrs failed attempt to rectify that situation through constitutional reform ultimately led to an armed insurrection that was quickly quashed—and to a stiff sentence for Dorr himself. Nevertheless, as Erik Chaput shows, the Dorr Rebellion stands as a critical moment of American history during the two decades of fractious sectional politics leading up to the Civil War. This uprising was the only revolutionary republican movement in the antebellum period that claimed the peoples sovereignty as the basis for the right to alter or abolish a form of government. Equally important, it influenced the outcomes of important elections throughout northern states in the early 1840s and foreshadowed the breakup of the national Democratic Party in 1860.

Through his spellbinding and engaging narrative, Chaput sets the rebellion in the context of national affairs—especially the abolitionist movement. While Dorr supported the rights of African Americans, a majority of delegates to the Peoples Convention favored a whites-only clause to ensure the proposed constitutions passage, which brought abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Parker Pillsbury, and Abby Kelley to Rhode Island to protest. Meanwhile, Dorrs ideology of the peoples sovereignty sparked profound fears among Southern politicians regarding its potential to trigger slave insurrections.

“The‘rebellion’ was an interesting, revealing moment in American history, which Erik J. Chaput establishes clearly and thoroughly in his book.

—The Historian

“based on wide and deep research into archives; Dorrs 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 Islands teapot. It had national implications and repercussions, influencing sectional politics, the controversy over slavery, and political party development in the 1840s and 1850s.”

—J. Stanley Lemons, HNN: History News Network
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Drawing upon years of extensive archival research, Chaputs book provides the first scholarly biography of Dorr, as well as the most detailed account of the rebellion yet published. In it, Chaput tackles issues of race and gender and carries the story forward into the 1850s to examine the transformation of Dorrs ideology into the more familiar refrain of popular sovereignty.

Chaput demonstrates how the rebellions real aims and significance were far broader than have been supposed, encompassing seemingly conflicting issues including popular sovereignty, antislavery, land reform, and states rights. The Peoples Martyr is a definitive look at a key event in our history that further defined the nature of American democracy and the form of constitutionalism we now hold as inviolable.

About the Author

Erik J. Chaput earned his doctorate in early American history from Syracuse University. He is a member of the History Department at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and is on the faculty in the School of Continuing Education at Providence College. He is the co-editor of The Select Letters of Thomas Wilson Dorr, which can be found on the Dorr Rebellion Project Site