201001ind History

This property at 35 Liberty Road in North Kingstown, shown in a photo on the tax assessor’s database, was once home to Rhode Island Governor Charles Jackson, who caused quite a controversy by pardoning Thomas W. Dorr at the beginning of his term in office. Dorr had been accused of treason for a “rebellion” which eventually led to reforms that expanded the eligibility of who could vote in Rhode Island elections.

Out on the edge of Slocum, a stone’s throw from Exeter on the North Kingstown end of Liberty Road, sits a charming center-chimneyed farmhouse which is shown in the accompanying photograph. Although seemingly unassuming, it played a part in one of the most dramatic episodes in Rhode Island history. For it was here that Gov. Charles Jackson retreated to escape the backlash brought upon him by his pardon of the then both famous and notorious (depending upon which side you were on)  Thomas W. Dorr; the leader of the Dorr Rebellion in 1842.

Ah — the Dorr Rebellion…it’s one of those things that every Rhode Islander has heard of, but few really have an idea of what it’s all about and the extraordinary importance it holds to the history of our little state. Here’s the “Reader’s Digest” version of the rebellion to bring you all up to speed. Prior to 1842, the government of Rhode Island was run under the auspices of the Royal Charter of 1663. This remarkable instrument of governance was unique in the wide range of personal, political, and religious freedoms it afforded the members of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It was also unique within colonial New England, in that it allowed Rhode Islanders to elect their own governor, rather than being ruled by a Royal appointee. Suffrage, or “the right to vote” for that government, was granted to un-indentured white males who owned land worth the equivalent of $134 — a princely sum (and a pretty sizeable chunk of land) at that time. This worked out fairly well through the colonial period, but upon the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid, almost explosive expansion of the fabric milling industry in the state, there were too many people who worked hard in the mills, but rented a home or lived in mill housing, and therefore by state law were denied the basic right to vote that comment workers in most other states already enjoyed. To compound this problem, due to the fairly large chunk of land needed to meet the minimum sum required, it was even more difficult for a city dweller, where lots were small, to reach the voting threshold, and voting power was therefore slanted toward the more rural southern and western portions of the state. When all was said and done, approximately 1,800 land-owning voters, mostly concentrated in these rural areas, controlled the destiny of a state of 108,000 souls. These basic inequities were noted by, among others, young Providence lawyer and state legislator, Thomas Wilson Dorr. Dorr led the call for a Constitutional Convention, which was held in October 1841; at that time a new constitution was framed and later adopted in January 1842. In April of the same year, an “election” was held under the auspices of the new constitution and, with every man allotted one vote, whether he be a landowner or not, Thomas Dorr was elected in a landslide. The problem here was that all this was done without the approval or cooperation of the duly-elected state legislators, as well as outside of the guidelines in the Royal Charter. So while the “Dorrites,” as they were now known, were having their election, the land-owning “Freemen” were having the real state-sanctioned one and Dorr was not the winner. Re-elected Gov. Samuel King was plenty ticked off when Dorr and his “Dorrites” attempted to seize the state house and the state arsenal. With legislative approval, he declared martial law and set out to put down the rebellion and arrest their upstart leader, Thomas Dorr. The rebellion was quenched, with much violence and uproar, on Acote’s Hill in Chepachet; and Dorr, who had fled to Connecticut in fear for his life, was arrested when he surrendered to state authorities upon his return. He was tried for treason and given a life sentence. Although he was, indeed, branded a traitor and cast into prison, his movement and the subsequent popular uprising had put the fear of God into the legislators. In that very same year, probably fearing for both their political and actual lives, a new constitution was drafted and adopted at the state house in East Greenwich; it was remarkably similar to Dorr’s own version. Finally, through the vision and sacrifice of Dorr, the common man in Rhode Island was guaranteed the right to vote.

This is where Charles Jackson enters the story. He was elected governor in 1845 by the slimmest of margins (149 votes). He was a Providence native and had a fine home on Benefit Street. But through his marriage to his second wife, Phoebe Tisdale, he came into possession of the 100 acre Liberty Road farm; it was his retreat from the city. He would eventually need it more than he could imagine. Jackson, a lawyer, banker, and mill owner, was known to be an honest man and a noteworthy orator. The Brown-educated son of the first president of the Providence-Washington Insurance Company knew what was right and what was wrong. He realized that to hold Dorr in jail for the “treasonable act” of bringing the vote to all Rhode Islanders was as wrong as it could be. He also knew that doing the “right” thing was political suicide, as the landowners still ran the show behind the scenes. But right was right and in 1845 Jackson gave Dorr a full pardon. He was not re-elected and spent much of his remaining years on the Liberty Road farm contemplating this ultimate legacy. He died in his Benefit Street home in 1876, having outlived Dorr by 22 years.

So, if you ever have an opportunity to take a ride down scenic Liberty Road out in Slocum, peer through the trees and try to spy the governor’s old farmhouse. As I do, I can’t help but stop and think about the momentous times that occurred way back then and I view this place as the “eye in the storm” for a brave and principled man.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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