Hanging in the President’s Office is a faded 19th century relic that commemorates a defining moment in Rhode Island history. May 3rd of this year is the 173rd anniversary of the inauguration of Thomas Wilson Dorr as governor of Rhode Island. The only problem was at the time there was already a duly elected governor, Samuel Ward King. In the weeks that followed, the state was subjected to an intense period of civil unrest that led to the failed storming of the state armory in Providence on May 18,, 1842. It has come to be known as The Dorr Rebellion. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the events and the commemorative flag in our museum.
In 1663, King Charles granted a royal charter that spelled out the form of government to exist in Rhode Island. It stated that the General Assembly membership would be based on the 1663 population distribution and that significant property ownership (valued at a minimum of $134.00) was required to vote. But by the mid 19th century, the state’s demographics had greatly changed, due to the Industrial Revolution, the growth of cities, and immigration. By 1829, 2/3 of the state’s population could not meet the criteria to cast a ballot. Forces for change in voting rights emerged; among those in a leadership role was young well-to-do Providence lawyer Thomas Wilson Dorr.
On April 17, 1841, thousands marched in Providence calling for a dramatic revision in the election process. The General Assembly saw the light and agreed to hold a constitutional convention in May. But, to be on the safe side, the suffragists decided to hold their own convention about the same time. In November, they unveiled their “People’s Constitution,” which favored universal white male suffrage. Dorr and some others had at first favored universal suffrage without racial restriction. Ironically, many black Rhode Islanders later took sides with the loyalists when Dorr and his supporters mounted their rebellion.
In April of 1842, two state elections were held. First, the so-called People’s Party elected the 36-year-old Dorr. Two days later, conservative forces (the Law & Order Party) reelected the incumbent Governor King who then appealed to President Tyler to send federal troops to the state in the event of a rebellion by Dorr supporters. Tyler chose not to get involved, but did send an observer. Dorr felt he had the support of the majority of Rhode Islanders and in the early hours of May 18th he marched with several hundred men to seize the weapons in the state arsenal on Cranston Street in Providence and mount an armed rebellion.
Dorr supporters (including some units of the state’s militia that were loyal to him) attacked the arsenal, but their 70-year old cannon expelled water, not cannon balls. Local Providence militiamen and volunteers inside the walls, including Dorr’s own father, Sullivan Dorr, fought back. With the failure of their cannon, the Dorrites faded into the night. Reinforcements loyal to Governor King arrived after the confrontation but were used to dislodge Dorrites from their encampment on Federal Hill on May 19th. Meanwhile, Dorr and a number of his men had fled to Chepachet. Eventually, he escaped to New Hampshire and later to Massachusetts. He returned in 1843 to face the music, was tried and convicted of treason against the state in 1844 (a strange verdict since treason can technically be only against a country). He was sentenced to a period of house arrest. However, the seeds of a new election process and reform had been sown in the Ocean State, and Thomas Wilson Dorr had gained national recognition as a civil libertarian. Others, to this day, consider him an anarchist.
For our flag story, we go back to September 10, 1842, when victorious supporters of Governor King gathered in Providence to celebrate and to honor those who came to defend the standing government. Militiamen from around the state paraded with 14 artillery pieces down Benefit Street to the Dexter Training Grounds for a day-long event led by the governor, Providence Mayor Thomas Burgess, and numerous dignitaries. Among the units honored was the Kentish Guards, led by Col. George Allen. (They missed the defense of the arsenal because Dorrites had waylaid the Kentish transportation and the Guards had to march on foot to Providence.) However, on June 27th Col. Allen led his men and six other militia units in putting down a large and bloody Dorrite riot in Pawtucket.)
An article, rich in the flowery language of the period, appeared in the September 12th edition of the Providence Journal. Thousands at the parade witnessed the presentation of hand-painted commemorative flags commissioned by “the ladies of Providence” to the four chartered militia companies (the Kentish Guards, and the Warren, Bristol and Newport Artilleries) that responded to the call for help from Governor King. The Journal reporter noted,
“the flags were painted by Mr. (Samuel) Bower (of Providence) upon whose skill and taste they reflect great credit. We need not say how dearly they will be cherished, and, if needs be, how bravely they will be defended.”
So who were the Rhode Island Guards? Why did they also get a flag and how did we come into its possession? Members of two unofficial militia units called the Warwick and Coventry Volunteers and the Coventry Volunteers were among those who turned out on May 18th to oppose the Dorrites’ attack on the arsenal. In October of 1842, men from the towns of Warwick, Coventry, and Cranston were formally chartered by the General Assembly as the Rhode Island Guards. A number of their members had been among the loyalist volunteers at the arsenal.
According to a newspaper piece, Rhode Island Historical Society written by the Hon. Henry L. Greene, the newly chartered militia held its first formal meeting on November 19, 1842, in the Greene & Pike’s Schoolhouse in Coventry. John Clarke Harris was elected Captain and Phillip Greene as First Lieutenant. The state later gave the new chartered militia $700 to build a suitable armory adjacent to the schoolhouse.
To recognize the efforts by the earlier volunteers (now official militiamen) ladies in the community, led by the daughters of former Gov. Sprague of Cranston and Captain Elisha Brown of Warwick, presented the Guards with the two-sided, hand-painted flag that now hangs in the Varnum Museum. It reads “Presented by the Ladies of Warwick and Cranston to the Rhode Island Guards for their Patriotic Services on the Eighteenth of May, 1842. Guard the gift as you did the givers.” Style and wording mirror the flags presented earlier to the other militias.
The Kentish Guards and several other units drilled with the Guards, who for a period of time carried weapons that had been provided by the state to the volunteers at the time of the Dorr uprising (these were eventually replaced). The Rhode Island Guards continued in existence until 1849 or 1850 (the last known meeting was held on October 22, 1849, in East Greenwich. Henry Greene’s account indicates there was no record of the official disbanding of the unit (and this author has found none). The armory building was sold in 1852 to the Washington Lodge of the Odd Fellows who constructed their meeting hall on the property.
Mrs. Francis Whittier Greene and Family, descendants of Revolutionary War hero Col. Christopher Greene, donated the flag in the Varnum Museum collection in 1941. The flag had been in the possession of a Rhode Island Guards lieutenant, Lehre Greene, a great grandson of Col. Greene. Frederick Cole Greene, another family member, was one of the founding members of the Varnum Continentals in 1907. So, it seems the mystery of our Dorr flag has been finally solved. Its presence in our collection is a significant reminder of a landmark event in our state’s history.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin