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Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

Dorr's Treason Trial

Dorr sat in the Providence, Rhode Island, city jail for five months before he was arraigned. On March 5, 1844, he pled "not guilty" and trial was set for April 26. Bail denied, Dorr remained in jail during the interim.

The trial was held before the judges of the Rhode Island Supreme Court (the former Supreme Judicial Council) at the courthouse in Newport, the center of pro-charter support where the prosecution had no trouble finding a jury that was sure to convict.

Assisted by three attorneys, Dorr represented himself and primarily relied on two lines of defense. First, he argued that since treason is defined by the U.S. Constitution, it is a crime that can only be committed against the United States and not against any individual state. Therefore, he could not be charged with treason against Rhode Island. Dorr also argued that, during the 1842 crisis, he was the legitimate governor of the state and the Algerine Law was invalid. After all, before the statute was adopted by the charter government, the People's Constitution had been overwhelmingly approved by the voters. Furthermore, pursuant to that constitution, Dorr had been elected governor and, after his inauguration, the reformers' government had repealed the law.

As anticipated, the court rejected these arguments and did not allow them to be presented to the jury. First, according to the judges, "wherever allegiance is due, there treason may be committed. Allegiance is due to a State, and [therefore] treason may be committed against a State of this Union." Second, only the state legislature that was elected in 1843, and not any judge or jury, had the power to decide which government or constitution was legitimate in 1842. All that the jury could do was to consider the facts of the case (of which Dorr made no attempt to deny) and accept the court's interpretation of the law.

The jury retired at 11 P.M. on Monday, May 6, 1844, to consider their decision. After waiting for the crowd to disperse, it returned a verdict of "guilty" three hours later. Motions were made for a new trial, but they were denied. On June 20, 1844, Dorr was sentenced to be imprisoned "for the term of his natural life, and there kept at hard labor in separate confinement." He was taken to the state prison in Providence two days later.

For one year, the sentence of solitary confinement was strictly enforced. Dorr was forbidden to speak or write to anyone outside the prison except for his lawyer; even his parents were denied access to him. His requests to take daily strolls in the prison's corridors and to have books to read were refused. Dorr's health deteriorated while in the damp, poorly ventilated prison. Still, Dorr was determined to fight on and when the state legislature offered an amnesty provided he swore allegiance to the 1843 constitution, Dorr refused.

Additional topics

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