Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
William D. Metz
The State of Rhode Island was governed under the Charter of Charles II until 1843. The Charter was accepted as the frame of the state government when independence from England was declared. Supplementary laws regulating the voting qualifications were enacted by the General Assembly early in the state’s history. The voting restrictions, written for the agrarian state, remained unchanged until 1843. The growth of manufacturing and commercial centers in the state led to many inequalities by 1840, when the first Suffrage Association began agitation for reform.
The agricultural areas of southern Rhode Island became involved in a struggle with the new interests centered in Providence County. Washington County was a good example of the strong conservative feeling in the southern part of the state. Elisha R. Potter, probably the county’s most prominent citizen, led South County as it refused to agree to an extension of suffrage that might wipe out rural control of the state.
Legislators from Washington County, with a few exceptions, supported the charter government from 1840 until 1843, when the new constituti0on was implemented. Men who voted with the reformers in 1841 were defeated for re-election in 1842. Not until 1845 was a single Law and Order Representative defeated in the seven southern towns.
However, several prominent South County men took a leading role in the suffrage rallies and the People’s Convention. North Kingstown had the heaviest manufacturing and commercial population and therefore showed a stronger tendency to co-operate in a reform movement. Only one member of the General Assembly in the whole county sought and received election to the suffrage General Assembly, and he was defeated in the 1842 general elections.
When the danger of civil strife threatened Rhode Island, South County, led by Potter, was willing to make limited concessions to preserve the peace. However, they were not extensive enough in 1842 to delay the enactment of the People’s Constitution and the election of a double set of state officers. The Landholders’ Constitution was defeated shortly thereafter.
Thomas Wilson Dorr, the suffrage governor, tried to take over the government several times, finally by force. In 1842 he first tried to take the Providence arsenal, and then he assembled an army at Chepachet. Both attempts were ridiculous failures. Governor Samuel Ward King called for presidential interference and declared martial law throughout the state. Troops moved into Providence County to defend the legal government, many of them coming from Washington County. Dorr and many of his followers were eventually arrested and brought to trial for treason under the Algerine Act.
Washington County maintained a conservative attitude throughout the Dorr Rebellion. There is little doubt that the great majority of its citizens favored retention of the rural control of the state. They supported the Constitution of 1842 and voted for Law and Order candidates until 1845, when several factors, including Potter’s vote for the admission of Texas into the Union and the liberation movement for the imprisoned People’s governor, took a part of Washington County’s voters out of the Landholders’ Party.
Freeman, Donald McKinley, "South County Reaction to the Dorr Rebellion as Illustrated by Elisha Reynolds Potter" (1955). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 2059.