Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 75,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Dorr, Thomas Wilson (1805-1854) The People's Constitution

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC05757.01 Author/Creator: Dorr, Thomas Wilson (1805-1854) Place Written: Rhode Island Type: Autograph manuscript Date: circa 16 June 1842 Pagination: 4 p. ; 33 x 20.4 cm.

Summary of Content: Editorial by Governor Dorr maintaining the importance of supporting the People's Constitution in Rhode Island, even though they failed to take the arsenal on 18 May 1842. Argues that any state would defend itself and its constitution if they were attacked by those who wished to overthrow the government. "So if the People's Constitution in Rhode Island have been rightfully adopted, and put in operation by the election & action of its Legislative, or other departments, is still a valid subsisting instrument, and has not been disposed of by the fate of arms, by the respiration of officers or by any other event which has transpired." Contains many edits. Date inferred from letter this document was sent with (see GLC 5757.02). Dorr, then an illegitimate governor, led the Dorr Rebellion over suffrage rights in Rhode Island.

Background Information:

Full Transcript: The People's Constitution.

For some time past [inserted: in the expectation of a collision] of arms [struck: expected between its opposing] between the opposing parties in this State, and amidst ...the preparations for active service, a most important and a vital question has been lost sight of - What has become of the People's Constitution? The attempt has been urged by its opponents to convince the friends of Equal Rights that, because the arsenal was not captured on the 18th of May, and on the same day Gov. Dorr deemed it inexpedient to maintain a contest with 50 men against 500, therefore the People's Constitution has come to an end, and all the past proceedings of the People have been erased, and are of no effect. That such an attempt should have been made, and should be still continued, [struck: un] in the confidence inspired by a temporary [struck: triumph] success, is not surprising. But no man, in the exercise of his deliberate judgment, ought to be deceived by it. If the Constitution was rightfully established and put in operation, by the election of a government under it, it has at this moment precisely the same validity that it ever had; and the rights defined & acquired under it [struck: are] subsist unaffected by any occurrence within the last four weeks. Suppose that, by a hostile invasion, the Legislature of [struck: Massachusetts] [inserted: New York], or of any other State, should be taken into captivity, and a large number of citizens should be put to the sword, what would be thought of an inference that any individual should pretend to draw from such an event - that the Constitution of New York had ceased to exist? Every man would reply, that it was [struck: lame and] [inserted: an] illogical & lame conclusion from [struck: unsound] the premises; because the Constitution [struck: was] is rightfully established, and contains no stipulation or condition, that is shall be deemed and taken to be nullified and abrogated by the happening of any such contingency. So if the People's Constitution in Rhode Island have been rightfully adopted, and put in operation, by the election & action of its Legislative, or other departments, it is still a valid, subsisting instruments, [struck: not to be] [inserted: and has not been] disposed of by the fate of arms, by the resignation of [illegible strike out] officers, or by any other events which has transpired. The work of forming and adopting this Constitution was a gradual one. What was thus done [2] cannot be easily undone. We all recollect the anxiety which attended the election of the first Legislature, and the holding of that first session. And why? Because the success of these measures was to give an actual existence to the Constitution. The People did successfully elect their officers under the Constitution. These officers did assemble [inserted: and organize themselves] in the forms presented by the Constitution; and the Constitution was put in operation. How, and to was respect this operation has been impeded, delayed, or suspended by any subsequent acts is another question, which, decide it as you may, does not affect the existence of the Constitution, any more than the non-execution of a law, in any instance, affects [struck: it] its existence, when [illegible] enacted. Some of the members of the People's Legislature have resigned their places. True - but the places can be filled in the manner prescribed by the Constitution. The [inserted: Chief] Executive Magistrate under the Constitution is not now in the State. But he has a right to be here. He is not expatriated. He has not compromised his rights as an officer of the People, nor their rights as electors; and [inserted: he] is the last man living to meditate or perform such as act. Suppose such an attempt had been made, or should be made, who gave the Legislature, or any magistrate, the authority to "compromise" the Constitution? The Constitution gives no such power. The whole People, who [struck: made] adopted the Constitution, have given no such power. In fact the Constitution now belongs to the Citizens of the State. Every man has a right to claim and insist upon the provisions which it establishes. In fact the Constitution now belongs to the Citizens of the State. Every man has a right to claim and insist upon the provisions which it establishes. It is his Constitution, A majority of the whole People was necessary to give it an existence. It is now the property of the individual members of the State, until dispensed with by the whole People. If these positions be true, and they Cannot be successfully controverted, how is the great question of Right involved in the controversy to be met with an assertion of the power of the Charter Party? Have we no Constitution, because some of our citizens have been rudely seized and thrust into a dungeon; - because a law of pains an penalties has been enacted by another body of men, claiming to be the Legislature of the State; - because $1000 have been offered for the arrest of Gov. Dorr in Connecticut, against the permission of it Chief Magistrate; - because suffrage men are thrown out of tenements, out of employment; - because it is difficult [3] for a friend of the People's Constitution to insure his house, or to obtain a discount at bank; - because his house is liable to be entered without a warrant in search for arms; - because he is liable to be stopped in the streets by an armed patrol, and insulted & roughly treated; - because, in a word, the supporters of Republican Institutions in Rhode Island are placed on he footing of servile insurrectionists, or Polish rebels -?- Let the common sense of every Republican in our State and county respond to this question. If the rights acquired under a Republican Constitution can thus be taken away, it is time that some new definition of popular rights be forthwith devised, [struck: and] that all our declarations of rights be given to the winds, and that we return to that "good old English monarchy" for which one of the members of the present Charter Legislature has recently expressed to decided a preference.
A large military parade is contemplated by the Charter men on the 4th of July, to
celebrate, as [struck: may be supposed] [inserted: we ought to believe], the principles of American Independence. But let us imagine for a moment, that their attention should be directed to the "Founding" Legislature, whose adjoined session takes place on that day. Suppose them to surround the building & transfix the members on their glittering [struck: stel] steel. The People and their Constitution may still survive the shock. A regular election of members will again take place in April; and what is more important, two members of Congress will there be chosen. These members will, without doubt, in the body which we may expect to see returned by the popular vote of the country, be recognized and admitted to their seats, and our Constitution will be thus admitted to have a valid existence by a branch of the National Legislation. Of the result of the coming Congressional elections our opponents are [struck: opponents] well aware, from indicators every where not to be mistaken. Hence the great anxiety to make People believe that their Constitution expired at the arsenal.
If the Charter Assembly should [struck: grant] extend suffrage on the same basis as that contained in the People's Constitution, they would, so far, harmonize with the People, by [struck: removing any objection on their part] recognizing their Constitution in part; but without giving it any [4] additional validity.
To "peace-men" to "force men" and to all other friends of Equal Rights we say [inserted: then] - Hold on to your Constitution.
See More

People: Dorr, Thomas Wilson, 1805-1854

Historical Era: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860

Subjects: Dorr RebellionRebellionGovernment and CivicsState ConstitutionElectionPoliticsSuffrageMilitary HistoryJournalism

Sub Era: Age of Jackson

Order a Copy Citation Guidelines for Online Resources