The Dorr Rebellion Project: Rhode Island History Online for High School and College Classrooms

by Erik J. Chaput and Russell J. DeSimone

Though it is often labeled as a comic opera and frequently ignored by writers of 19th-century America, the 1842 Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island was an event of major importance in the antebellum period and is by far the most well-documented event in the pre-Civil War period. Surprisingly and unbeknownst to even the most veteran historians of the nineteenth century, the Dorr Rebellion is the also the most well-illustrated event in early America. There are over two hundred known sketches and broadsides connected with the event. There are no comparable artistic drawings for the 1786–87 Shays Rebellion in western Massachusetts, the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, or the 1799 Fries Rebellion in eastern Pennsylvania, nor are there many images connected with the contemporaneous Anti-Rent Wars in New York.

In 2010, the digital service team at the Phillips Memorial Library at Providence College helped to bring the story of the Dorr Rebellion into the high school and college classroom.

The Dorr Rebellion Project was conceived of by Dr. Erik Chaput, Russell DeSimone, and Christiane Marie Landry in April of 2010. The project site was launched in September 2011 with an aim to develop an authoritative online educational resource on the Dorr Rebellion, engage in new forms of pedagogy, and add content over time to further elucidate the historical event. Aimed at upper level high school and college students, the website offers a gallery page, four digitized letter collections, a side-by-side comparison of various constitutions, a short documentary, digitized pamphlets, and lesson plans.

The story of the Dorr Rebellion represents a constitutional question of great moment for Americans before the Civil War that is often neglected in American history textbooks. The question was simple: who were the rightful monitors of the constitutional order? Today, many take it for granted that that function falls to the U.S. Supreme Court—a natural role of interpreting the meaning of the Federal Constitution. But that question was far from clear for Americans of an earlier generation. For them it seemed quite plausible that the Court, Congress, and the Executive each had roles, and what their interrelationship was remained uncertain. And, of course, even more outside of our “modern” understanding and yet clearly compelling to many Americans, was the possibility of the a role for “the people”—however one conceived them—as a check on unconstitutional actions of government. For teachers looking for ways for students to do a deep dive into an often-neglected aspect of popular sovereignty ideology in the decades before the Civil War, the Dorr Rebellion Project website offers access to vast array of primary material.

How to Use the Dorr Rebellion Project

To begin, teachers should have students watch the documentary covering the rebellion that appears on the homepage. Next, students should turn to the Gallery. The images in the gallery, along with the detailed captions, provide students with a rich visual experience supplementing the documentary. These include broadsides, handbills, political cartoons, manuscripts, election ballots, sheet music, suffrage ribbons, and images of Thomas Dorr and his family. All of these artifacts make useful teaching aides. For example, the political cartoon “Tyrants Prostrate Liberty Triumphant” can be used to explain the role of the rebellion in national politics, especially the presidential election of 1844.

A black-and-white political cartoon applauding Democratic support of the Dorrite cause in Rhode Island. Title: "TYRANTS PROSTRATE LIBERTY TRIUMPHANT." Six men stand in a row. Text of the quotes. Dallas: "As sure as a God of Justice rules on high he will be free." Fame: "Speed the sound O'er all your plains The Martyr's freed from shameful chains! Around his brow will freemen twine A glorious wreath of myrtle vine! Our Polk obey the people's call; The Tyrant sees his shackles fall! And every son of Liberty Shout long live Dorr the great the Free!" Polk: "The people will speak in tones of thunder yet, they brook no old King's charter, to enchain true patriots!" Dorr: "The process of this Court does not reach the man within, From this sentence of the Court I appeal to the People of our State and our Country!" Clay: "Alas! alas! when Dorr is free King Charles charter will be destroyed, and with it the last British form of Government in these States. and the last hope of our Aristocracy for the people will have triumphed!" Frelinghuysen: "Ah my master say not so for then Church and State will never be united!" Webster: "Yes they will If we join the American Party, and raise a Protestant succession on the ruins of Popery."
“Tyrants Prostrate Liberty Triumphant.” Courtesy of the Dorr Rebellion Project.

“The Doctrine of Sovereignty,” written by Dorr in 1853, is a useful tool for classroom discussion because it clearly summarizes the notion of popular sovereignty. 

A manuscript on one sheet of off-white paper written in cursive. There are a few words crossed out and inserted, indicating this is not a polished final draft. The underlined title reads, "The Doctrine of Sovereignty." The rest of the text reads, "There is One over all, God [illegible] forever; and under him the People are sovereign. This Revealed Word is the higher law, to whose principles and rules of action recourse is had by the frames of Constitutions & by legislators, to inpart justice and equity to political institutions. The application of these principles & rules to the Constitutions and legislation acts of States, and to men in their political relations, is what has been called the democracy of Christianity.Rights are the gift of God. The definition and protection of them are the objects of just government." It is signed, "Tho's W. Dorr, Providence, R.I., Aug. 10th, 1853."
Thomas Dorr, “The Doctrine of Sovereignty.” Courtesy of the Dorr Rebellion Project.

After a classroom session with the gallery page, students will be ready for the digital letter collections. Each letter is accompanied by an overview essay, along with headnotes, personagraphies, and specific guide questions to further understanding and spark conversation. Students should be instructed to make connections with the letters to images in the gallery. 

The website’s newest digital letter collection, the Dorrite Women Letter Collection, provides a unique insight into antebellum America. These women, along with their husbands and children, were often connected to the Whig Party. However, Dorrite women, who mainly hailed from the lower ranks of society, were often unmarried, sometimes divorced, and most notably devout supporters of the Democracy, the name used at the time in reference to the party of Andrew Jackson. Although there was not an overt call for suffrage to be extended to females in 1841–42, Dorrite women still demonstrated a remarkable capacity for political agitation on behalf of disenfranchised males. Associations were formed in mill villages and towns, including Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket. Ann Parlin referred to herself as the “presidentess” of a Ladies Benevolent Association. Parlin took on a public persona, speaking at meetings with predominantly male audiences in Providence and New York City. She even offered, according to historians Ronald and Mary Zboray, to lead a female militia company. Catharine Williams and Frances Harriet Whipple-Green took a less public role, preferring instead to use their pens. Whipple-Green is best known as the author of Might and Right, a full-length book published shortly after the rebellion.

For the more advanced classroom, the website devotes a page to the constitutions that were framed during the rebellion, thus providing for a critical analysis in the classroom of both the People’s and the Law & Order Constitutions. Special attention should be paid to the articles on suffrage, as there are significant differences in the two constitutions. To aid in this analysis, an article-by-article comparison chart is included on the site, as well as short introductory essays to each constitution. In support of a more detailed understanding of the rebellion, a resource page containing all the contemporary accounts and newspaper reminiscences is provided, as well as a selected bibliography for further study.

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