« ZurückWeiter »
guided them through the storms of the Revolution, and made them members of the great federative republic ; which had kept their fathers' feet from stumbling, and had been a shield to them in their own years of infancy and childhood. The inequality in the representation of the towns was not yet very marked, and even where it was most apparent, it was not felt as a practical grievance. The towns were few in number, and the opposite extremities of this little State being hardly fifty miles apart, a contrariety or even a division of interests could not exist between the several communities inhabiting different portions of it, and unequal legislation was consequently impossible. The people were mostly engaged in agricultural pursuits, and owned the lands which they cultivated. A great majority of them, therefore, were freeholders, or belonged to families the heads of which were freeholders. The right of suffrage seemed to be in the proper hands, when it was vested in the owners of the soil and the heads of the families that formed the major part of the population.
But during the second period, some remarkable changes took place in the character of the population, and corresponding alterations in the fundamental laws at last appeared inevitable. Manufactures were introduced, and the inhabitants of some towns, which enjoyed facilities for this branch of industry, increased with astonishing rapidity. A division of interests was created between the different portions of the State by this variety of employment, and the more populous towns, the growth of which had been fostered by the new direction of labor and capital, became uneasy at observing the advantage which their agricultural neighbours possessed in the control of the Assembly. A larger amount of capital, moreover, was vested in personal estate. Some men of large fortunes owned not a foot of ground, and, consequently, had not the right to vote. It was very natural, that they should be jealous of the small farmers, who had now almost the entire management of the politics of the State. Then a loose and shifting population, composed of laborers in search of employment, was introduced into some towns by the growth of manufactures, and though they had no hold upon the State, and could hardly be considered as permanent residents in it, they were unwilling to live without the political influence which they had enjoyed in their former homes.
While such causes were at work to produce discontent with the existing laws, it is much to be regretted, that the freeholders did not soon perceive the necessity of granting a moderate extension of the right of suffrage. The constitution under the charter had worked well ; but a new state of things was growing up under it, and republican institutions must be flexible enough to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances of the times. Seasonable reforms prevent sweeping ones. 66 A froward retention of custom,” says Lord Bacon, “is as turbulent a thing as an innovation. It were good, therefore, that men in their innovations would follow the example of time itself, which indeed innovateth greatly, but quietly, and by degrees scarce to be perceived." A reasonable and judicious reduction of the qualifications required of a voter, if offered early in the period we are now considering, would have been satisfactory to the people, would have robbed the Suffrage party of any pretence or excuse for their illegal movements, and would have obviated the necessity of a more radical change, effected a few years later, amidst the tempests of a revolution. We do not say, that the Assembly should have made this concession as a matter of right. There was no right in the case, as will be hereafter demonstrated. But reform had become expedient, and it was unwise to withstand it so long. The excuse for the dilatory action of the freemen is to be found in the repose and apparent indifference of the people of the State respecting the whole subject. Agitation on the topic was long deferred, but it came at last like a whirlwind, and had wellnigh made wreck of the government and the laws. A deceitful calm preceded the movement. Petitions on this matter to the Assembly were few and far between, and it was but seldom discussed in the public journals. But the demagogues were at work, and the day of contest was at hand.
A convention was called by the General Assembly in 1824, for the purpose of forming a written constitution. The delegates were chosen by the freemen, or qualified voters. They came together in June, and completed their work in little more than a week. The constitution, which they devised, was adapted only to remedy the inequality in the representation of the towns, the qualifications for suffrage being retained as they were before, except that the right of
voting was taken away from the eldest sons of the freehold
A clause was proposed to allow those who were not landholders to vote ; but it was supported only by three delegates, and therefore was not inserted in the draft of the constitution. The representation was made nearly equal, no town being allowed less than two, nor more than seven representatives, the number being varied between these limits according to the population. This constitution was submitted to the qualified voters, and was rejected by a majority of more than fifteen hundred, owing chiefly, as was supposed, to the jealousy which the other towns entertained of the city of Providence, the influence of which in the Assembly would have been much increased, had the proposed instrument been adopted. The whole vote was a very small one, being less than five thousand, when the whole number of voters in the State was at least eight thousand. This fact seems to show, that there was but little excitement on the subject, and that the people generally did not desire a change.
The matter was not allowed to rest, however, and a new interest in it being awakened in the city of Providence, in 1829, several petitions and memorials respecting an extension of the right of suffrage were presented to the General Assembly. They were referred to a Committee, and, in the June session of that year, a very able report upon them was made, written, we believe, by the late Mr. Hazard. The question in respect both to right and policy was thoroughly discussed, and it was strenuously denied, that the proposed change was either equitable or proper. This report was accepted, and the petitioners had leave to withdraw.
We hear nothing more of any formal action on the subject till 1834, though the topic was discussed from time to time during the interval, especially by those citizens of Providence who were not freeholders. Hitherto, the agitation had been entirely confined to this class of persons, the expediency of a change finding but few advocates among the freemen. But several members of the bar now united themselves to the party, improved its organization, and gave more method and respectability to its proceedings. Among these persons was Thomas W. Dorr, who was afterwards to act a very distinguished part in the matter.
Under their guidance, the party determined to call a State convention, to VOL. LVIII. NO. 123.
draw up the outlines of a constitution, lay them before the people, and then attempt to support them at the polls. The convention met, and recommended certain provisions in regard to the ratio of representation and the elective franchise. These were designed only to act upon public opinion, the whole proceedings being informal, as the convention was not authorized by the legal authorities. The desired effect was not produced, no decided impression being made upon the freeholders, and the party could never muster more than seven hundred votes out of eight thousand.
after a resolute struggle of four years, this “ Constitutional party,” as it was then termed, became extinct, after the members of it had given great moral power to the cause which they advocated, though they had produced hardly, a perceptible effect on the opinions of the freemen.
Meantime, the General Assembly were not idle. They called another convention, in 1834, to amend the charter; but when Mr. Dorr, who was then a member of the House, proposed as an amendment, that all resident inhabitants of the State, who had paid a tax on real or personal estate valued at $ 134, should be allowed to vote in the choice of delegates, the proposition was defeated by a vote of fiftyeight to four.
The convention met, but several towns were not represented in it, and the members who were present probably did not intend to accomplish any thing. Before the draft of a constitution was completed, the body adjourned for want of a quorum, and never came together again.
No other decided movement was made till 1840. A very small minority in the House of Representatives made a motion, from time to time, to amend the charter, or to extend the elective franchise ; but after very little debate, it was invariably voted down. Petitions on the subject were occasionally presented, but copies of them were not preserved, and it is, therefore, impossible to tell how numerous, were the signers. It is not likely, that the number was great. The State was agitated by the discussion of national politics, the subject of a tariff, or the choice of a President, and the attention of the inhabitants was thus diverted from their local concerns. Many persons, who were in favor of an extension of suffrage, refused to manifest their opinions at the polls, lest they should disturb the organization or the movements of the national party to which they belonged. This
reluctance to act showed that they felt no deep and abiding interest in the subject; otherwise, they would not have been diverted from it by the contests of parties, the issue of which could not materially affect their immediate interests. repeat it, then, the restrictions on the elective franchise and the unequal representation of the towns were not felt as practical grievances. The operation of the laws was equal, taxes were moderate, justice was impartially administered, and no person had any direct cause of complaint. He might murmur because he was not allowed to govern others; but he could not assert, that he was ill governed himself. He felt a more lively interest, therefore, in the contest between the friends of General Harrison and Mr. Van Buren, than in the amendment of the constitution of his own State.
But after the great contest for the Presidency, in 1840, was ended, the agitation about the right of suffrage in Rhode Island revived at once, and almost immediately assumed a threatening aspect. A “Suffrage Association " formed at Providence, composed mostly of persons who were not owners of real estate, and the whole machinery of discussion and turmoil was put in motion. Frequent meetings were held at the Town Hall, angry and exciting speeches were delivered, badges denoting membership were worn in public, processions displaying banners and accompanied with music marched through the streets, and every artifice was used to swell their apparent numbers and terrify their opponents. A person ignorant of the history of the case might have supposed, that some new question had arisen, some wrong suddenly discovered, or injury lately done, instead of thinking that the whole excitement depended on a question quite as old as the first settlement of the Colony. Other associations, auxiliary to the parent body, were formed in different parts of the State ; and lecturers were sent from Providence to the several towns, to make addresses to the people, and kindle their passions in support of the cause. The party avowed their determination to form a new constitution and government, without the aid of the legislature or the other constituted authorities, and to support their measures by force, or by an appeal to the legal tribunals, on the ground that the people were sovereign, and had a right to act for themselves, without regard to usages or laws.
Before we trace their proceedings further, it will be well