Collaborative Dorr Rebellion Documentary to Premiere
Providence, R.I.--Most people outside of Rhode Island have never heard of the 1842 Dorr Rebellion.
But while Rhode Islanders may be among the only people to learn of this important incident in the history of voting rights, constitutional scholars and historians remember it as a milestone in the quest for the common man to control his own government.
A new short-form documentary--set to premiere on Thursday, September 29, in Phillips Memorial Library on the Providence College campus--relates the story of the rebellion.
The event will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. on the main floor of the library. The origins and intent of the project will be discussed by the contributors, followed by a viewing of the documentary, a demonstration of a Website dedicated to the rebellion, and a question-and-answer session.
The film is a collaborative product among PC alumni, faculty, and staff. Written by Dr. Erik J. Chaput ’03 & ’05G, an instructor in the graduate history program, and Russell J. DeSimone ’67, the documentary uses Chaput’s doctoral dissertation and images provided by DeSimone from his private collection.
Chris Landry, principal digital services assistant in Phillips Memorial Library, is producing the documentary. Landry, in conjunction with Chris Gubata, Library Commons assistant, is developing a Website to serve as an online Dorr Rebellion resource. Dr. D. Russell Bailey, library director and associate professor, and Mark Caprio, commons librarian and head of Digital Publishing Services, have facilitated the project.
Additionally, Dr. Patrick T. Conley, J.D. ’59, retired professor of history at PC, served as a consultant and is featured in the documentary. Conley’s 1977 book, Democracy in Decline: Rhode Island’s Constitutional Development, 1776-1841, has stood the test of time as one of the best books on the state’s political culture.
“Our hope is to make it an authoritative scholarly resource on the Dorr Rebellion and related topics for users worldwide,” said Landry of the documentary.
Landry was immediately interested in making a documentary after Chaput shared with him his research for his doctoral thesis in 2010. Chaput earned a doctorate from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in 2011. Chaput and Landry both have experience in filmmaking.
“After that initial discussion, we pulled in Russ DeSimone and Mark Caprio to figure out the project’s content, its scope, and a solid methodology to get us there,” said Landry.
A brief history
According to Chaput, the objective of this project is to educate both the local and greater communities about the Dorr Rebellion. Most U.S. textbooks do not even mention the event.
The rebellion was a short-lived, armed insurrection led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, a local politician who agitated for changes to the state’s electoral system. Dorr, a Harvard graduate, was a scion from one of the state’s wealthiest families. His parents’ home is still standing on Benefit Street in Providence.
The origins of the rebellion lay deep in Rhode Island history. Beginning in 1776, all of the original 13 colonies, except Connecticut and Rhode Island, wrote new constitutions and set up representative governments. Rhode Island continued to operate under its 1663 colonial charter.
The document contained no amendment procedure, which meant petitioning the General Assembly was the only available recourse for reform. The charter also restricted suffrage to those men possessing $134 of real estate (figure set in 1798), thereby disfranchising most of the population of the commercial and manufacturing districts in and around Providence.
After several attempts at change were rebuffed, the working people of Rhode Island organized the Rhode Island Suffrage Association. Dorr eventually assumed leadership of the association. Dorr and his followers organized the “People’s Convention” and wrote a new constitution that greatly expanded the suffrage for adult white males, though the vote was not extended to African Americans.
Over a three-day period in late December 1841, an overwhelming majority of Rhode Islanders--almost 14,000 in favor with just 52 opposed--cast ballots for the “People’s Constitution.”
Naturally, the charter government did not acknowledge this new constitution, even though the majority of Rhode Islanders clearly wanted a change. By the spring of 1842, Rhode Island had two opposing governors and two general assemblies and was on the brink of all-out civil war.
Chaput’s and DeSimone’s script highlights the tensions between the two governments and the events of the rebellion.
--Genevieve Marie Ilg ’14