Even after the American Revolution, Rhode Island’s royal charter from 1663 was not replaced with a new constitution, and the charter limited suffrage in the state to citizens who owned a certain amount of property. As the state became more populous and industrialized in the 1840s, this limitation applied to a fraction of the state’s residents. In 1841, a state constitutional convention was held that resulted in a “People’s Constitution.” Thomas Wilson Dorr was elected governor under the new constitution in 1842. This constitution was not formally recognized by the state’s general assembly, which was governed by the royal charter.
Facing arrest by the charter government, but believing passionately that he was the lawful governor of the state and that his actions were justified by the promises of equality for all men in the Declaration of Independence, Dorr led a failed attack on the arsenal in Providence in 1842. He subsequently fled the state, but returned in 1843, when he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison for his role in rebelling against the state of Rhode Island.
A groundswell of support for Dorr’s cause of expanded suffrage for Rhode Islanders facilitated his release from prison in 1845, and in 1854 his treason conviction was reversed by the general assembly. As this House record shows, the Rhode Island supreme court declared the reversal of Dorr’s conviction to be unconstitutional. However, the original issue could not be tried in court, so the court’s opinion was not binding. Dorr died in December 1854, shortly after the opinion was written.