The Dorr Rebellion: The Politics of the People's Sovereignty in Jacksonian America

Erik J. Chaput, Syracuse University


"The Dorr Rebellion: The Politics of the People's Sovereignty in Jacksonian America" tells the story of the life of the nineteenth-century reformer Thomas Wilson Dorr and the constitutional crisis that erupted in Rhode Island in 1842. Dorr's attempt at extralegal reform constitutes the only revolutionary republican movement after 1776 in which the sovereignty of the people was brought from the realm of theory into practice and attempted implementation. Utilizing a literal interpretation of the alter or abolish provisions in the Declaration of Independence, Dorr and his followers called for delegates to be selected to an extralegal constitutional convention, which in turn drew up a new constitution for the state. The document was then sent it out to be voted upon in an unsanctioned plebiscite. An overwhelming majority cast ballots for the so-called People's Constitution in December 1841. Rhode Island authorities refused to recognize the new government that was set up under this constitution in April 1842. The end result was a political ruling schism, a militant confrontation, and federal suppression of one side.

The Dorr Rebellion was the most significant political and constitutional event between the presidencies of Martin Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln. This study contextualizes the rebellion within the Jacksonian discussion of the people's sovereignty versus the Whig commitment to the rule of law. It also examines how the rhetoric of the people's sovereignty called into question the compatibility of republican government with slavery. The politics surrounding the nature of the people's sovereignty in the 1840s and 1850s serves as a crucial harbinger to what historian Sean Wilentz has labeled the "democratization" of anti-slavery politics.