Dorr Was Cool, Until He Wasn’t

Steve Ahlquist has published a portion of the testimony he will be giving in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 2641, which is an attempt to revoke Rhode Island’s current Voter ID law. Calling upon the memory of “Governor” Thomas Dorr, Ahlquist writes:

Arguably, next to Roger Williams, no Rhode Islander has done more for the cause of human rights, freedom and democracy. In 1840, a mere 8,621 men voted in the presidential election, because at that time only white male landowners had the right to vote. In response, Dorr led a rebellion, which was unsuccessful in that he never won a battle, but he did win the war. Due to his efforts, voting rights were expanded and in 1844 12,296 white men were allowed to vote, whether they owned land or not.

Dorr suffered for his actions. He was sentenced to prison, and though he was later released and pardoned, his health was broken and he died at the age of 49. Thomas Wilson Dorr literally gave his life for the cause of enfranchisement.

Dorr truly was a revolutionary, but also a man (and eventually a politician) of his times (and perhaps motivated more by self-interest then we like to think).  Nevertheless, his battle to extend suffrage in Rhode Island was a noble one and he took it as far as he could at the time: for non-propertied white men.

Yet, there’s more to the Dorr story than the “he died a broken man”. It leaves out the last decade of his life when his views on popular sovereignty morphed to a variety that sought to maintain slavery. So, in essence, he fought to disenfranchise African-Americans. This summarized well by J. Stanley Lemons, Professor of History Emeritus at Rhode Island College in a review of Eric Chaput’s well-received 2013 book on Dorr, “The People’s Martyr“:

The man Chaput shows us in that last decade was anything but heroic or admirable. One of the great ironies of Dorr’s life was that his concept of popular sovereignty – the right of the people to choose their government — morphed into the popular sovereignty of Stephen Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, where the local people could choose whether to be a slave state. It became a tool for the expansion of slavery. Dorr defended that right even when it went wrong and prostituted himself to the cause of the Democratic Party in the 1850s. Dorr had opposed the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, and he urged every Democrat to oppose it. Now he came to argue that the “Slave Power” was just an idea promoted by the abolitionists to stir up sectional controversy, and he became wholly opposed to the abolitionists, with whom he had once been allied. He argued that Congress had no power to interfere with the spread of slavery into the territories or even to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He even concluded that that the mass of slaves in the southern states were better off than those living in Africa and that the slaves had been brought over to serve a “better race.”

Dorr emerges by the end of Chaput’s biography as a gravely flawed figure, a man who betrayed his own reform efforts and who ended up as a Democratic hack politician, promoting the party’s ideology of territorial expansionism and the extension of slavery. In 1841-1842 Dorr had hoped for federal intervention on his side, but by the late 1840s he opposed federal intervention in the slavery issue with regard to the western territories. Popular sovereignty in the territories became part of the compromise to hold the Democratic Party together, and Dorr treated this compromise almost like a “religious faith” and the Democratic Party “akin to a church.” (208) Dorr’s negrophobia and defense of the expansion of slavery seems all the more dramatic when the reader is reminded that Dorr once was on the executive committee of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. Chaput concludes by saying that by the late 1840s “Dorr invented a new history for himself that completely left out his association with the northern abolitionist movement.” (206). It was almost as if his career as a reformer no longer counted. He became an ardent supporter of Franklin Pierce, a dough-face Northern Democrat who sided with the slave-holding wing of the party. Loyalty to the Democratic Party trumped everything for Thomas Dorr.


ADDENDUM: Ahlquist also cite’s a state from Nate Silver on the supposed disenfranchisement that occurs with Voter ID in place. Ahlquist argues:

In 2012, Nate Silver, the statistician who consistently astounds with the accuracy of his election predictions, estimated that the Rhode Island Voter ID law effectively disenfranchised .8% of voters, which translates to 6,704 voters losing their franchise. In essence, this body, the Rhode Island State Senate, in cooperation with the Rhode Island House of Representatives and the signature of Governor Chafee, disenfranchised nearly twice the number of voters Rhode Island hero Thomas Wilson Dorr gave his life to enfranchise.

Though he cites the stat correctly, the article to which Ahlquist refers doesn’t quite frame it that way and Ahlquist leaves out some of the context Silver also offered with his analysis:

[T]here is…not necessarily a reason to think that the laws would reduce turnout by more than a couple of percentage points. It’s important to keep the following in mind:

• The vast majority of adults do have some sort of identification.
• Many people who do not have identification are not registered to vote — or if they are registered, they are unlikely to turn out.
• The laws may be inconsistently enforced by thousands and thousands of poll workers at the precinct level.
• In many cases, voters without proper identification can cast a provisional ballot, which could eventually be counted in the event of a vote-counting dispute.
• The campaigns have an opportunity to educate their voters about ID requirements as part of their turnout operations.

In short, can you be “disenfranchised” if you couldn’t or wouldn’t have voted anyway?

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