Thomas Dorr’s Rebellion

Justin Elliot at Salon asks historian Michael Kazin, Where Does Occupy Go From Here?

Many a protest campaign begins this way. The sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters beginning in February 1960 had an end — desegregation of public facilities — but they weren’t quite sure of where it was going after that. They just thought, “This is a neat tactic that will draw attention.” And it did. That began with four students in Greensboro, N.C. But it soon blossomed, and now their lunch counter is in the Smithsonian. The movement against the Vietnam War also began with very small protests in 1964, and then grew into ones with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. So protests can grow and become catalysts for larger and more diverse movements.

Civil rights, of course, is one bright victory in American history, and follows many failed attempts to gain justice for disenfranchised people in our society.

Enfranchisement is at the heart of this action. When corporations are very big people who put big money into campaigns– easier since Citizens United, when voting machines can be hacked, when obstacles are put in the way of qualified voters in the off years when few are watching– we have to come out and defend the vote.

The Occupiers are treading in the footsteps of Thomas Dorr, who campaigned for universal manhood suffrage in 1841. He thought that non-landowners, even Irish immigrants, had a right to vote. Dorr’s electoral win not being recognized, his followers took to the streets. Their rebellion did not last long and Dorr faced exile and imprisonment. Along the way, he gave way to expedience, abandoning the rights of free black men to favor the Irish who saw justice as a limited commodity with not enough to go around.

Despite the apparent failure of direct action, the reform that Thomas Dorr sought was advanced…

The Charterites, finally convinced of the strength of the suffrage cause, called another convention. In September 1842, a session of the Rhode Island General Assembly met at Newport, Rhode Island, and framed a new state constitution, which was ratified by the old, limited electorate, was proclaimed by Governor King on January 23, 1843, and took effect in May. The new constitution greatly liberalized voting requirements by extending suffrage to any free man, regardless of race,[1] who could pay a poll tax of $1, and was accepted by both parties. Though Dorr originally supported granting voting rights to blacks, he changed his position in 1840 because of pressure from white immigrants. Therefore, the Law and Order Party supported black suffrage, gaining the allegiance of blacks, who initially had supported Dorr.[2]

Some interesting history for the Occupiers, with some cautionary notes. Imagine if Dorr had brought all the disenfranchised men together and led them to see their common interests.

One aspect of today’s Occupation is the lack of leaders and the presence of diverse people and groups coming together for economic justice. The concentration of power and wealth is so extreme that the 99% include almost all of us.

Social change for the better feels so natural and reasonable that we soon forget it was not always this way. We forget that it often starts with people who put themselves on the line, are not afraid to be mocked and labeled, and are not afraid to reach across class lines to find a common cause for justice.

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2 responses

  1. The other protests you mention were very focused.
    I don’t think this “Occupy”movement has articulated much specific info to the public and is really kind of insular and inward directed.
    When I drive by the site it seems like everyday life goes on around them without taking notice.

  2. [...] seen the wheel go around a few times, I advise we don’t re-invent it. Almost 200 years ago Thomas Dorr and his supporters occupied Providence and despite many failures ultimately achieved their goal of expanding the right [...]

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