The People’s Martyr: PC Lecturer Chaput '03, '05G Pens Book on Dorr Rebellion
For more than seven years, Dr. Erik J. Chaput ’03, ’05, a lecturer in the PC School of Continuing Education and teacher at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, researched thousands of documents related to the nineteenth century Rhode Islander Thomas Wilson Dorr. The product of that research is The People’s Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and His 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion (University Press of Kansas, 2013) — the first scholarly biography of Dorr and the most detailed account of the rebellion ever published.
In the book, Chaput tackles issues of race and gender and carries the story forward into the 1850s to examine the transformation of Dorr’s ideology. He also demonstrates how the rebellion’s real aims and significance were far broader than have been supposed — encompassing seemingly conflicting issues, including popular sovereignty, antislavery, land reform, and states’ rights.
Below, Chaput explains Dorr’s historical significance, provides a framework of the political climate in nineteenth century America, and talks about a few surprising aspects of Dorr’s political life.
Why did you write The People’s Martyr?
As I began my formal research, I came to the realization that Thomas Dorr’s attempt to change Rhode Island’s archaic governing structure was significant, not just in its own right, but also as a window into the ongoing debate over the American Revolution, the meaning of the people’s sovereignty, and the nature of abolitionism.
The intense light of national interest created a written record — unsurpassed in its rich documentation of the perspectives of all parties involved. Most notably, there are more than 200 known broadsides relating to the Dorr Rebellion — making it the most well illustrated event in the Jacksonian period. The testimony of so many men and women preserved in small collections throughout the state provides insight into a world normally lost to modern eyes. Thomas Dorr’s attempt at political reform enabled Americans to articulate their hopes and fears in concrete ways.. I draw on the testimony of politicians, journalists, ministers, abolitionists, jurists, and literary figures, along with those that held no public role and yet were deeply interested in the outcome, to write the book.
Who were some of the historians that you encountered in your research?
I think every young historian has a moment when an aspect of history captures the imagination. I had plenty of moments of discovery in the archives, but the most valuable encounter I had in my early research was getting to know Russell J. DeSimone — a local historian, private collector, and the author of a series of informative pamphlets on the Dorr Rebellion. Russell graciously invited me into his home to view his massive collection of broadsides, letters, and pamphlets relating to the Dorr Rebellion. Most of the images in the book and the 1844 color lithograph on the cover comes from Russell’s incredible collection.
I was blessed during my time at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University to be a part of a vibrant intellectual community. Historians James Roger Sharp, Keith Bybee, David Bennett, Thomas M. Keck, William M. Wiecek, Carol Faulkner, and Ralph Ketcham were wonderful mentors and helped me to develop the research skills I gained during my time as a History major at Providence College. I had the good fortune to have Professor Robert Hayman and Professor Robert Deasy as my advisors during my undergraduate years.
Why is Dorr an important figure and why is his rebellion an important event in American history?
As I researched Thomas Dorr’s early life, I was struck by the sheer wealth of his Federalist father and his comfortable upbringing on the East Side of Providence. However, during his time at Harvard University, Dorr rejected the notion that his upper-class status set him apart from the masses. What struck me about Dorr as he emerged as a key political figure in Rhode Island politics in the late 1830s was his devotion to causes that his parents probably scoffed at, most notably education, banking and prison reform, along with antislavery and abolitionism. Dorr also promoted the rights of free African Americans. Unlike so many other whites of his generation, Dorr did not harbor any racist tendencies. As he told his mother Lydia, “there is no Negro gallery in heaven.” During the People’s Convention in 1841, Dorr spoke eloquently about the rights of all men — not just white men. For a moment, it seemed that Dorr’s views would win out and African American males in Rhode Island would receive the right to vote. He believed that he was carrying Jefferson’s statement that “all men were created equal” to its logical conclusion.
So what was going on in Rhode Island that propelled Dorr into history? By 1840, roughly 80% of adult white males in the U.S. were eligible to vote. As I detail in the book, this was not the case in Rhode Island. Dorr ardently believed that the government of Rhode Island, which was still based on the 1663 colonial charter, was degenerating into a government of despots and selfish materialists. He did not see Jefferson’s line in the Declaration of Independence about the right of the people to “alter or abolish” their form of government as mere rhetorical flourish. In 1841-1842 the right to vote had become to be seen as an emblem of citizenship by Rhode Islander reformers. Indeed, the term citizenship had become synonymous with the right of suffrage. Dorr wanted to ensure that this view would flourish, even if it meant ignoring the sitting government of his native state. Dorr believed that the majority of Rhode Islanders had cast a ballot for the People’s Constitution in late 1841 and that the old regime was no more. Dorr did not share the Frenchman Alexis Tocqueville’s fear of majoritarianism. Rather he embraced it wholeheartedly. The end result was the most significant political and constitutional event between the presidencies of Martin Van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.
When conducting research for this book, was there anything that surprised you or that you found particularly interesting?
As a teacher at The Lawrenceville School, one of our nation’s oldest boarding schools, I was particularly interested in Dorr’s time at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. I was pleasantly surprised to find the multitude of letters between Thomas and his younger brother Allen that detail what it was like to be a student at Exeter in the early nineteenth century. I also was surprised to learn that Dorr was a true antislavery Democrat in the late 1830s, which put him in very rare and unique company in terms of antebellum politicians. Finally, I was somewhat taken back by the ways in which southern politicians labeled the People’s Convention “an abolitionist enclave” even though the majority of northern abolitionists condemned the People’s Constitution because it contained a white-only clause.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope that readers come away with an appreciation of Dorr’s entire life and not simply his actions in the spring of 1842. I also hope readers will enjoy the discussion of the multitude of abolitionists, including Abby Kelley, Parker Pillsbury, and Frederick Douglass, who descended upon Rhode Island in late 1841, sparking an intense discussion of the meaning of democracy and the nature of citizenship. Finally, I hope readers will enjoy my discussion of how Dorr’s conception of the people’s sovereignty was taken up by other Democrats in the later part of the 1840s as a way to settle the vexing question of slavery’s expansion. I think readers will be surprised to learn about Dorr’s drift to the proslavery wing of the Democratic Party. In the 1830s, Dorr embraced and promoted abolitionism. By the 1850s, however, Dorr railed against what he called the “meddling abolitionists” in a letter to Henry Duff, a strong advocate for the Rhode Island’s Irish community.