To The Tea-Partiers: What, Was Dorr Too Populist For You?

The Glenn Beck book signing — and that I’ve recently watched a great portrayal of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter — reminded me that I’d thrown together this piece a few months ago: When I noticed that the Tea Party gang had tried to go all local, commemorating the burning of the Gaspee, it struck me as conspicuous that they did not even begin to acknowledge the Dorr Rebellion, the state’s grandest populist uprising. For to truly engage with Dorr would require admitting that the Tea Party cause, with its anti-immigrant (“No room, no room!” insists the Mad Hatter), anti-urban, anti-government bent, contrasts with a more inclusive populism and the force of history, in Rhode Island and in our country at large. And that it runs starkly counter to the very effort that won our state its Constitution.

As the pseudo-populist “Tea-Party” movement organizes around the anniversary of the burning of the Gaspee, I’m struck for the umpteenth time by our state’s — and nation’s — limited recognition of one of America’s most notable and worthy popular uprisings: Rhode Island’s Dorr Rebellion. That effort’s climax was 167 years ago this week, as “the people’s” Governor Thomas Wilson Dorr, Seth Luther, and their men tried and failed to take the state’s Armory at Dexter St.

It’s been noted that the leaders and funders of (though admittedly not all of the participants in) the modern “Tea Parties” would likely have been Torries were they alive in 1773. It’s even clearer that had they been in Rhode Island circa 1842, they would have heeded the call to arms of “law and order” Governor Samuel Ward King, to defend the “rotten boroughs system” and its property-based voting rights, against the popular insurrection that was reluctantly led by the Anglo Dorr, but largely manned by disenfranchised recent Irish immigrants — and which gave our state its Constitution.

(Exhibit #1: The Rhode Island Statewide Coalition — formerly, and more tellingly, the Shoreline Coalition — has been one of the local Tea Party movement’s biggest boosters, and also a proponent of legislation to tie voting to property ownership, allowing the wealthy to vote in multiple municipalities.)

Dorr and his compatriots were tragic heroes who pushed the state towards the adoption of its first constitution, and their movement has much relevance even today.

Typically defiant in every which direction, Rhode Island was the first state to abandon the Brits, but the last to forsake the charter they’d afforded us. In the 1840s, we were still abiding by the laws granted by Charles the Second, in our Charter of 1663.

Under the Charter, legislators were chosen via a system resembling the Electoral College — that so-called “rotten boroughs” system — which skewed the allocation of seats disproportionately in favor of the outlying communities. The franchise was confined to those free white men who owned $134 in property; as immigrants flocked to our rapidly industrializing cities, eventually only one third of even free white men were eligible to vote, and urban areas had even less representation.

After several failed attempts to reform these laws through legislative action — many led by Dorr, a state representative from Federal Hill — suffrage supporters held a “People’s Convention,” and drafted a more liberal constitution. The suffragists hired as an agitator the great and infamous orator and labor activist, Seth Luther, whose life’s work had been to push for government intervention to prevent business from exploiting workers. Thousands marched in the streets of Providence and Newport. The document was put to an extra-legal vote, in which all white men who’d lived in the state for one year could participate — obviously a far too narrow electorate, but much better than what came before — and it passed overwhelmingly, even winning majority support of those who could vote under the Charter. A legislature was elected, and a hesitant Dorr became the “peoples’ Governor.”

All the while, an anxious and paranoid Samuel King claimed the title of Governor, as per the rules of the Charter, and had no intention of relinquishing it. As Dorr mustered support from Democrats and populists throughout the region, King called on President John Tyler for support. He refused to intervene, but asserted that he would, if necessary.

The Dorrites’ armed attack on the Dexter arsenal took place on May 19, 1842. They were rebuffed, and retreated to Chepachet. Dorr fled the state, and the movement fizzled out, hastened by a martial-law crack-down by King and his troops. But the Charter government succumbed to the popular will, ratifying a constitution that dramatically expanded the right to vote, and reapportioned the legislature.

Dorr and Luther were found guilty of treason, but released a year later, because of popular pressure. (Luther lived for some time, but died in a Vermont insane asylum; Dorr died a broken man at the age of 49, but is officially recognized as a former governor of Rhode Island.)

The Dorrites’ effort is strong evidence of the efficacy of direct action in support of a righteous cause. (To be clear, that’s nonviolent direct action that I’m advocating — It’s worth noting that despite much chest-puffing, only one person was shot during the whole episode.) The Tea Party-goers would appear to agree on this point.

But whose cause is righteous? Much has changed since 1842, but much remains the same. So let’s draw a bit of inspiration from Dorr’s philosophy — and not just his tactics. Let’s support a genuinely populist agenda: One that respects hard-working city-dwellers — including our state’s new immigrants. One that recognizes that the outer boroughs still gain advantage at our urban communities’ expense — asking inner cities to provide our state with jobs and services, to host our non-taxable hospitals and colleges, to house our factories, power plants, and dumps — while forcing them to scrape together local funds to pay for starving school systems and dilapidated roads. One that understands that it’s the property tax that strangles our residents and small businesses — and that the way to lower it is through more state support for our schools, and more revenue-sharing, rather than via continued tax breaks for the wealthiest, and blind calls of “cut, cut, cut” and “let them eat crumpets.”

2 thoughts on “To The Tea-Partiers: What, Was Dorr Too Populist For You?”

  1. The Tea Partiers seem to be out of touch with reality, history, and society. Just the fact that they call themselves ‘Teabaggers’ shows how much they know about the world they live in.

    I find it particularly ironic and ignorant, however, that they name themselves after the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The popular but incorrect notion is that Patriots rebelled against an oppressive tea tax. In fact, the opposite is true: Colonists rebelled against the Tea Act, which eliminated the tax on tea, allowing the British to undercut the lucrative black market tea. It was actually a reaction to a free market option competing with an illegal market.

    While it’s understandable that most Americans have the wrong idea about this, it’s particularly telling when it comes from people portraying themselves as some kind of experts on taxes. If a doctor told you he’d taken the Kevorkianic Oath, you’d run the other way. So why would you accept anything from someone who has the entirely wrong concept of an historical event they pretend to be an expert on?

    I appreciate your delving so deeply into the mindset of the Teabaggers. It’s informative, to say the least. But I wonder how valuable it is to explore the thinking of people who simply refuse to learn. Once you fix where they are, I think you can pretty much rely on them staying there. In terms of public policy, it’s a matter of navigating around them, because as any shipman will tell you, you can’t move a rock.

  2. “Tea Party cause, with its anti-immigrant (”No room, no room!” insists the Mad Hatter), anti-urban, *anti-government…*”
    This is the one problem I have with your post.

    Historically, Rhode Island has been pretty anti-government. I mean, we were founded by 3 people who were practically anarchists (Williams, Hutchinson, and Groton). Hutchinson even left Rhode Island after Newport became too oppressive. We rebelled against the British government, resisted the constitution, and rebelled against our own state government. Roger Williams wrote:
    “we have not known what an excise means; we have almost forgotten what tithes are, yea, or taxes either, to church or commonwealth.” Of course, he changed his ways, but we were still *founded* on anarchist principles.

    That being said, I wouldn’t really call the tea-partiers anti-government. They have no problem with big government as long as their guys are in charge.

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