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The Suffrage Party in Rhode Island


[From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for October, 1844]

            It is no pleasant task to us to review this work, a professed history of the proceedings of the late suffrage party in Rhode Island.  It is a work written with intense feeling, and very considerable ability, by one for whom we entertain, and always must entertain, a very high personal regard.  We find in it the spirit of a very high-toned woman, a woman’s deep sympathies, just sense of humanity, and, we may add, a woman’s reasoning, more perplexing than convincing, and better adapted to touch the heart than to satisfy the understanding.  Moreover, we once ventured to call the individual principally concerned in these proceedings our personal friend.  We esteemed him as a man of no mean intellectual ability, of firm principles, of ardent devotion to popular rights, a true-hearted patriot, and an honest man.  And of him, personally, we have seen no cause to change our opinion.  We have delighted to meet him, and felt ourselves honored by his friendship.  We should regard his friendship, which unhappily we do not retain, no less now he occupies a prisoner’s cell, than formerly.  We believe he acted from his convictions of right, that he was sincere in what he attempted, and that his only motive was to benefit the mass of the people of his native state.

            And yet we have never for one moment approved the proceedings of the suffrage party.  We, in common with the great body of the American people, wished to see the elective franchise extended to the great mass of those who could not be electors under the old established freehold qualification.  Though not by any means accustomed to rate the elective franchise so high as do the members generally of the political party with which we are associated, and though very far from believing the acquisition of universal suffrage equivalent to the acquisition of liberty, or that universal suffrage affords any considerable guaranty, in a country where inequality of property obtains, of wise or just government,- we have yet believed it essential to the perfection of the political system adopted in this country, and have therefore always advocated its general adoption.  Accordingly, we were among those who encouraged the formation of the suffrage association, believing, as we did, that its only design was to act on public opinion, and by the force of opinion, to compel the charter government to take measures for the formation and adoption of a more liberal constitution.  We willingly accepted an invitation to address the association, in Providence, early in January, 1841, in favor of an extension of suffrage.  We watched the progress of the movement up to the time of calling the suffrage convention, when, becoming engrossed with other matters, we paid no more attention to the subject, till about the time when the new government under the people’s constitution was preparing to organize itself.  We regarded the whole proceedings under that constitution as illegal and revolutionary; but we were not disposed to condemn them with much severity, because we could not perceive how any amendment could be legally introduced, or the evils complained of legally redressed.  We supposed the restriction on suffrage was a provision of the charter, and, if so, it could not be altered by any legal authority in the state, as the charter did not provide for its own amendment.

            Taking this view of the question, we argued, that, let the measures for the extension of suffrage, or the formation of a new constitution emanate from what source they might, from the suffrage association or from the general assembly, since not authorized by the charter from which existing authorities derive their existence and power, they must needs be, in fact, illegal and revolutionary.  The people’s constitution is, we said, confessedly illegal in its origin; but so also must be a constitution framed by a convention called by the general assembly, for the general assembly has no authority from the charter to call a convention.  Since, then, the suffrage association have called a convention, since that convention has framed a constitution, and since a majority of the people of Rhode Island, as it is alleged, have voted for it, it is decidedly best to let it go peaceably into operation.  It is not, it is true, a good constitution; it contains several very objectionable features; but as it provides for its own amendment, it may hereafter be amended; and, bad as it is, it is better than the old charter.  Presuming, from the information we received, that an immense majority of the people were satisfied with it, we concluded that nothing was wanted but a little firmness on the part of Mr. Dorr and his friends in its defense, to induce the charter party to yield, and suffer the new government to go quietly into operation; and being also a little indignant at what we regarded the unwarrantable interference of the federal executive, we wrote to Mr. Dorr a letter, which he has since done us the honor to publish, and which we must have received a day or two before his attack on the arsenal, detailing the conversation we had with a Whig member of the Massachusetts legislature, and urging him to firmness in asserting the constitution under which he was elected.  That the letter may be construed into the expression of approbation of Mr. Dorr’s principle of proceeding is very possible, for it was hastily written for a special purpose; but it was not intended to express any approbation of any thing but his cause, to wit, extension of suffrage; for that was all in his proceedings we approved.

            But, after Mr. Dorr’s failure, it came out that the limitation of suffrage to a freehold qualification was not a provision of the charter, but an act of the legislature.  This changed the whole aspect of the case; for now it could no longer be pretended that there was no legal authority in the state competent to extend the elective franchise to all to whom it could be advisable to extend it.  We saw that we had reasoned from false premises, and had therefore come to false conclusions.  And when we met with a very able pamphlet on the subject by Mr. Elisha R. Potter, at present a member of congress from Rhode Island, we found that we could not, without belying our own cherished convictions, any longer countenance, in any form or manner, the proceedings of the suffrage party.  Since then, we have expressed, on various occasions, our dissent from them, and in some essays on the Origin and Ground of Government, we discussed the whole doctrine involved in them with as much thoroughness as seemed to us necessary.

            We have made these personal explanations, because our course in regard to the suffrage movement in Rhode Island has been much misrepresented, and adduced as another instance of our fickleness and frequent changes of doctrine and position; and because it has been made the occasion of bringing us, to no inconsiderable extent, under the ban of our own party.  We have no apology to offer, and nothing of which to accuse ourselves, but that of relying on the representations made of the charter by our suffrage friends, instead of consulting the charter itself.  Had we taken the proper pains to inform ourselves of its real character, in the first instance, we should have never for a moment seemed to occupy any other position in regard to the suffrage movement than we do now; for our principles have undergone no change, and we had expressed, had even written out and published, the some doctrines as applicable to the case before, that we have since, as any one may satisfy himself by consulting Mr. Potter’s pamphlet to which we have already alluded.

            On one point, however, the controversy growing out of the Rhode Island suffrage movement has led us to reflect more than we had previously done, and on which our views, if not changed, have at least become clearer and more definite.  We refer to what is called the sacred right of revolution.  We believe the political sovereignty, under the spiritual sovereignty of Christ, which has always a visible embodiment and organ on earth, resides in the body of the nation.  We say nation instead of people, because the term is less ambiguous.  The term nation conveys always the idea of a corporation, an organic body; while the word people may mean only a numerical collection of individuals.  A nation never exists without a legal constitution of some sort, written or unwritten, and some legal forms or modes for collecting the national sense.  Now, since the nation has a corporate existence by virtue of the fact that it is a nation, it possesses in itself the supreme political power, which commissions all the officers of government, and to which they are responsible.  When these officers, or what is called the government, betray their trust, break the fundamental laws of the nation, whether those laws are written on parchment, or in the customs of the people existing from time immemorial, the nation, acting in accordance with these laws and customs, may unmake the administrators of the government, commission new ones, and institute new guaranties against abuses, and even by force of arms, if necessary.  So far as this is a right of revolution, we are advocates of that right, but no further.  But so long as the legitimate administrators of the government observe the national laws, and administer the government in accordance with them, honestly, and with a single eye to the maintenance of justice, we hold all resistance to the civil authority to be criminal.  A revolution, for the mere purpose of changing the form of government, of substituting one form of government for another, as monarchy for aristocracy, or democracy for monarchy, or vice versa, we hold to be never justifiable.  The authorities must themselves transgress the national laws, and put themselves thus out of the protection of the law, before the citizen or subject can have the right to resist them.  We may resist tyrants and usurpers, but never the lawful magistrate in the lawful discharge of his official functions.

            The principles here laid down will justify the colonists in their separation from Great Britian, but not Mr. Dorr in his attempted revolution in Rhode Island.  Our fathers took up arms to resist an aggression on their constitutional and chartered rights.  They contended, not that the British government had invaded or failed to secure certain assumed abstract rights of man, but their rights as recognized by the British constitution and the colonial charters.  It is against George III as a tyrant, as violating the national laws, that they profess to take up arms; not against the king in the legal exercise of his constitutional prerogative.  But the suffrage party planted themselves on no national law of Rhode Island, written or unwritten, they alleged, and could allege, no transgression, on the part of the charter government, of any public law, no usurpation, no act of tyranny.  They simply alleged that the charter government did not correspond to their notions of the best possible form of government, did not secure what they regarded as the abstract rights of man; and they took up arms, not to expel a tyrant or usurper, but to establish a new form of government, more conformable to their notions of abstract truth and justice.

            Here is a broad difference between the suffrage men and the patriots of the revolution, which the author of the work before us has failed to recognize, and which would have prevented her, had she recognized it, from placing the heroes of Federal Hill and Chepachet on the same line with the heroes of Saratoga and Yorktown.  The former were, view them in what light you will, rebels against legitimate authority; but the latter were resisting aggression, and vindicating the violated majesty of the laws.  The suffrage men may have meant well, and they may have incurred no great share of moral guilt; for to moral guilt there must be a guilty moral intent, or, what is the same thing, a culpable ignorance.  But they were politically rebels, and could be treated only as such by a government that respected itself, and resolved to discharge its legal functions.

            We regard this question as one of vital importance in our country.  The laws have, with us, their chief support in public opinion.  Let that opinion become unsound or corrupt, and the laws lose their force, and we are without protection.  If the doctrine once obtain among us, that legal authority may be set aside for the purpose of making the government conform to our abstract theories of human rights, there is no foreseeing the lawlessness and anarchy which will ensue.  The symptoms are already threatening; and recent riots and mobs, and, worse of all, the delay and hesitancy of authority in using force for their suppression, and the very extensive doubts which obtain as to the rightfulness of resorting to force at all, are to us really not a little alarming.  We are, we own, sensitive on this subject; when we reflect that we have recently come to entertain a faith extremely odious to the great majority of our countrymen, and when we see associations formed expressly for its suppression, its adherents shot down by an armed mob in the streets, and its consecrated churches in flames, while the rabble, not composed altogether of those commonly meant by the lower classes, look on and shout, we feel more and more the necessity of rebuking the mobocratic spirit, in whatever form it may manifest itself, and more and more the necessity of inculcating a reverence for law, and strict obedience to the lawful magistrate in the discharge of his lawful duties.  We cannot afford, in this country, to insist on “the sacred right of insurrection,” for we shall, if we do, have bands of insurgents in every town, village, and hamlet, in the land.  Whatever we may think of Mr. Dorr and his friends personally, we cannot approve their measures, or defend their doctrines, without a terrible hazard to the country, to all security of peace, life, property, and conscience.

            As to the proceedings of the law and order party in Rhode Island, we are far from believing that they are in all cases defensible.  We are glad that that party has succeeded; but it is evident now that it magnified the real danger, and was less calm and collected than it might have been.  We think the friends of the government suffered themselves to be exasperated beyond measure, and to practice, in some instances, cruelties which were as cowardly as they were uncalled for.  But we must say for the people of Rhode Island of both parties, that in general they came as near making war on Christian principles as could be expected.  They seem to have had a generous disposition to do as little harm as possible to their friends and neighbors.  Still, we wish the friends of the government had shown a little more consideration to the prisoners taken at Chepachet after the war was over, and, as they had shown much tenderness of heart during the battle, that they had continued to show the some in the flush of victory.  They must have known that the suffrage men, women, and children, however mistaken or deluded, were not really criminally disposed, and would not have espoused the cause they did, had they felt that it was morally wrong.

            But making all abatements for the panic and the momentary cruelty, we doubt whether, upon the whole, we ought not to say that the Algerines, as they are called, conducted with singular moderation and leniency, under the circumstances.  We cannot wholly approve of their doings, but we do not think that they are deserving any great severity of censure.  It seems to us, that, since the panic subsided,- perhaps not an unreasonable panic,- they have been disposed to let off the offenders as easily as possible.  The convictions and punishments have been very few; and we believe that there has been no one, charged only with a political offense, but could have escaped all punishment by taking an oath of allegiance to the existing government, and giving moderate bonds to keep the peace.  We are sure no government was ever more moderate in its demands, or showed itself more ready to forgive and forget the past.

            The case of Mr. Dorr is, we own, one of considerable hardship.  Mr. Dorr had, we believe, no private ambition to gratify; we know, personally, that he very reluctantly became involved in the proceedings of the suffrage party, and we have no doubt that he himself believed that he was engaged in a great and holy cause, and perfectly justifiable in the course he took.  It may be said that he ought to have known better, lawyer as he was, and this cannot be denied; but when we find such men as Mr. Van Buren, Senators Benton and Allen, Governors Hubbard and Morton, and Messrs. Bancroft, M’Neil, Rantoul, and Hallett, supporting him, and maintaining the strict justice and legality of his proceedings, we may, perhaps, find some palliation of his offence.  We can easily believe him free from moral guilt.  His party is so completely prostrated, and public opinion, notwithstanding appearances, is so decidedly against his proceedings, that we do not believe that considerations of public safety require his incarceration.  Personally he has been at least sufficiently punished.  The government of Rhode Island is as firmly established as that of any other state in the Union.  Let it permit one, whose good intentions it has no reason to distrust, to tell it that it is strong enough to be generous.  We own, the insane proceedings of individuals out of the state must be offensive, and that no government that respects itself can yield to their demands.  They are wrong.  They are cruel to Mr. Dorr, whose friends they pretend they are.  They are really his worst enemies.  And yet the government can disregard them, and be generous without fear of misconstruction.  An act of clemency is sometimes worth more to a government than the infliction of a merited punishment.  The government has done itself honor by imposing the heaviest penalty on the chief instead of the subalterns.  It has vindicated the majesty of the law; it has shown its justice; now let it show its mercy, and blot out the memory of its past.

            We have been assured that the authorities of Rhode Island are ready to liberate Mr. Dorr the moment he testifies his willingness to submit to the existing government, and to take the oath of allegiance.  That he should be reluctant to do this is not strange.  He holds that he has committed no offence; that the acts for which he is punished were done by him as the rightful governor of the state, in the conscientious discharge of his constitutional functions.  His failure to maintain his authority before superior force did not and could not vitiate his title, or render his acts criminal.  Shall he now yield, acknowledge himself guilty, and sue for pardon?  No; better die on the scaffold, or rot in the dungeon.  This is the view which he takes.

            We hope we are able to reverence the martyr spirit wherever we see it displayed; and we frankly own, that, if we took Mr. Dorr’s own view of his case, we should look upon him as a sublime example of moral heroism.  But he himself must be aware that there is something to be said on the other side.  Even his acceptance of the office of governor under the people’s constitution was treason by the law of the state.  Of this he cannot doubt.  Then he was not the rightful governor of the state; and if not the rightful governor of the state, there can be no question that the acts that he performed rendered him guilty of treason.  The act of the general assembly, April 6, 1842, entitled “An act in relation to offences against the sovereign power of the state,” declared his attempt to exercise the office of governor to be treason; and that law was valid, because the general assembly was still in the full exercise of all its legislative functions, had been superseded by no law paramount to its own, and was, in fact, the only known legislative authority in Rhode Island.  It is idle to pretend, that, on the 6th of April, 1842, the general assembly had ceased to exist, or in any sense been superseded.  An association, unrecognized by any public law or any public authority, had, it is true, framed an instrument which was called a constitution, had sent it out, and a number of persons in Rhode Island, said to be a majority of all the adult males in the state, recorded their names in its favor, and certain individuals, equally unknown to all existing public authority, declared it to be the paramount law of the land.  But this could not make it so.  Everybody knows that it was not the paramount law of the land de facto. Was it the paramount law de jure? Its advocates say now, indeed, that it was, because a majority of the people of Rhode Island had voted for it.  But to this we may reply, 1, That the fact, that a majority did vote for it, has never been legally ascertained, and is more than questionable; 2. That it is well known that the intent of large numbers who did vote for it was, not to establish it as the constitution of the state, but simply to record their opinion in favor of an extension of suffrage; and 3. That, even if a majority had voted for it with the intent to adopt it as a constitution, it would not have been the paramount law of the land, because there was no law in Rhode Island, written or unwritten, which declared the will of the majority of the adult male population the supreme law.

                Furthermore, the existing public authorities ignored it, and its warmest and most influential friends did not hesitate to acknowledge the legality of the existing authorities, by holding seats in the general assembly, and participating in its doings.  Mr. Atwill, a legal gentleman of respectable attainments, and subsequently Mr. Dorr’s attorney general, when the question came up in the assembly, was unwilling to give it as his opinion that the people’s constitution was the paramount law of the land, and even expressed a doubt to the contrary.  The whole conduct of the suffrage party at the time shows that they entertained the some doubt.  The propositions made respectively by Messrs. Burgess and Keech, two of Mr. Dorr’s friends, to the assembly,- propositions to abandon, on certain conditions, the people’s constitution,- showed that it was not regarded by them as having any legal force; for, if they had so regarded it, they could not have made propositions for setting it aside, for they would have regarded such propositions as treasonable.

            But if this constitution was not at that time the paramount law of the land, as it was not, either in fact or in right, or even in the estimation of its friends, the general assembly was in full force as the supreme legislative authority of the state.  Consequently, its legal acts were binding on all the citizens of the state.  They were, then, binding on Mr. Dorr, and, by doing what it declared to be treason, he incurred the political guilt of treason, and therefore became obnoxious to the penalty annexed.  Now, since nothing can be clearer than that he is guilty of treason according to the laws of his state, there can be no real self-abasement or want of manliness, in admitting the fact, by submitting to the existing authorities, and consenting to receive a pardon.

            We say further, that, setting all this reasoning aside, Mr. Dorr is bound by his own principles to submit to the existing government, and to take the oath of allegiance.  Mr. Dorr contends that the majority of the people have the inherent right to rule.  This, with him, is a natural right, as least recognized as such by the American system of government.  We, of course, do not admit this; but he does, and that is enough for him.  The will of the majority, therefore, however expressed, is the supreme law.  The people’s constitution was adopted by the majority of the people; therefore it was the supreme law.  He was elected governor under that constitution, and therefore he was legally elected, and therefore was the rightful governor of the state.  Be it so.  But, subsequently to the adoption of the people’s constitution, a majority of the people of Rhode Island adopted another constitution.  This subsequent constitution necessarily overrides the preceding one.  Now, if the will of the majority has a right to rule, it has the right to rule through this subsequent constitution; for this is the latest expression of their will.  Consequently, Mr. Dorr is bound by his own principles to recognize it as the legitimate government, and may therefore take the oath of allegiance without abandoning in the least the principles for which he has contended.  We are surprised that he did not see this, and avail himself of this argument, before his trial; for we presume, that, if he had done so, and taken the oath, he would not have been brought to a trial at all.

            But we have no room to extend our remarks.  We have merely wished, while expressing our sympathy with Mr. Dorr, and our earnest desire for his liberation and restoration to his social and civil rights, to say a word in defence of the authorities of Rhode Island.  We believe the government of Rhode Island is much calumniated, and that, if the American people fairly understood the case, they would by no means tolerate the abuse so liberally heaped upon it.  For ourselves, we believe that the interest of humanity and social progress are fully as likely to be promoted by siding with the public authorities in the legal discharge of their legal functions, as with those who resist them.  It is not the part of good citizens to take it for granted that the government is always in the wrong, and that they who resist are always in the right.  As a general rule, the interests of social and individual progress and well-being require us to sustain the constituted authorities, and always when these authorities keep within the sphere of their constitutional powers.

            For the book which we have introduced, we have not much to say.  It is ably, in some passages eloquently, and even powerfully, written.  It is not always correct in its details, and is very far from possessing the true character of an historical work.  The most we can say of it is, that it is an able, an eloquent, apology for Mr. Dorr and his friends,- as able as any thing we have written on the subject.  But it is so erroneous in its premises, so false in its conclusions, so dangerous in its doctrines, so well calculated to mislead, and to undermine the foundations of all proper respect for authority, for law, that we dare not recommend it to our readers.