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.