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Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

Reformers Draft A "people's Constitution"

In October 1841, a convention led by a 35-year-old lawyer and former state legislator, Thomas Dorr, drafted a "People's Constitution" that guaranteed free suffrage to all adult white males. Two months later, the document was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum that was held in defiance of the state government; even the majority of those who were already entitled to vote backed it. In the meantime, the state authorities and their supporters drafted another constitution that extended the franchise but still did not give the vote to every adult white male. This second constitution was defeated in March 1842, when it was presented in a referendum limited to those who could vote under the 1663 charter.

In April 1842, both the state government and the supporters of the People's Constitution conducted their own elections for governor, the state legislature, and a variety of other offices. In addition, the charter government passed a statute declaring the reformers' election to be illegal. Known as the "Algerine Law," the ordinance also made it a crime to run for office in the reformers' election and made it treason against the state of Rhode Island, punishable by life imprisonment, for anyone to assume a statewide office under the People's Constitution. All trials arising under the Algerine Law were to come before the state's highest court, the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members had already declared themselves in favor of the old government. Finally, although a jury trial was provided for, the alleged crimes could be tried anywhere in the state, thereby assuring that the state government could prosecute the defendants wherever juries could be found that were likely to convict.

On April 18, 1842, the supporters of the People's Constitution elected Dorr as governor. Two days later, the backers of the charter government feelected Governor Samuel King. In early May, both governors, as well as rival state legislatures and other officials, were sworn in. There were now two governments in Rhode Island, with the reformers in control of the northern part of the state.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844 - Reformers Draft A "people's Constitution", Reformers Attempt To Seize State Arsenal, Dorr's Treason Trial