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Thomas Wilson Dorr Trial: 1844

Reformers Draft A "people's Constitution", Reformers Attempt To Seize State Arsenal, Dorr's Treason Trial

Defendant: Thomas Wilson Dorr
Crime Charged: Treason
Chief Defense Lawyers: Thomas W. Dorr, representing himself, assisted bySamuel Y. Atwell, George Turner, Walter S. Burges
Chief Prosecutors: Joseph W. Blake, Alfred Bosworth
Judges: Job Durfee, Levi Haile, William R. Staples, and George A. Brayton
Place: Newport, Rhode Island
Date of Trial: April 26-May 7, 1844
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Life imprisonment "at hard labor in separate confinement"

SIGNIFICANCE: Today, the right to vote is often taken for granted. Indeed, less than 50 percent of all voters cast their ballots in a typical election. However, in 1842, a local civil war almost broke out in Rhode Island over the issue of who would have access to the ballot and one man was sent to prison for it.

After the American Revolution, not everyone was allowed to vote. Women and ethnic minorities were denied the ballot, but so were men who had no property or wealth. In some states, for example, a person had to pay a poll tax before he could vote. In others, only those who owned large amounts of land were allowed to participate in the electoral process.

By 1840, many of these restrictions had been abolished in the United States, but not in Rhode Island. There, the charter granted in 1663 by England's King Charles II was still serving as the state constitution, and it gave only landowners and their eldest sons the right to vote. As a result, more than half of the adult males in the state were denied voting privileges.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882