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to consider separately the action of the established government down to the end of the period with which we are now concerned. The General Assembly came together in January, 1841, when petitions were presented to it, signed by less than six hundred persons, praying for the abrogation of the charter, an extension of the right of suffrage, and a more equal representation of the towns. This brought up the whole subject for discussion, and it was finally resolved, that delegates should be chosen for a new convention, to be held at Providence on the first Monday of November, 1841, with full powers to frame a new constitution. At the June session of the legislature, resolutions were adopted to allow the towns to be represented in the proposed convention by a number of delegates proportioned to their population, but restricting the choice of the delegates to the freemen, or qualified voters.
The convention met at the appointed time, and on the question of suffrage, at once decided to admit persons to vote who were not freeholders. But they found it difficult to determine how large an amount of personal property should be considered as a qualification for the elective franchise, and they finally adjourned to February 14th, 1842, in order to ascertain more fully the wishes of their constituents on this important point. When they met again, they soon completed the draft of a constitution, which gave the right of suffrage to
every white male native citizen of the United States," of the age of twenty-one years, who had resided in the State for two years, and in the town or city six months. In
respect to the natives of foreign countries, who had been naturalized in the United States, the freehold qualification was retained.
The Representatives were distributed among the towns quite equitably on the basis of the population. To make the list of concessions complete, it was determined, both by the convention and the General Assembly, that “all persons who shall be qualified to vote under the provisions of [this] Constitution, shall be qualified to vote upon
question of the adoption of said Constitution.” It was to be submitted to the people, for ratification or rejection, on the 21st, 22d, and 23d days of March, 1842.
It must be admitted, that this instrument, commonly called the “ Landholders' Constitution,” was as bountiful a concession to popular rights as any party could reasonably de
sire, and that it established a frame of government as liberal as any which existed in any State in the union. In respect to the elective franchise, the ratio of representation, and the mode proposed for its adoption, it granted all that had been claimed by any party or individual, down to the commencement of 1840. Its adoption would have remedied all existing difficulties, and would have insured the peace and prosperity of the State for a long period to come.
We return to the history of the proceedings of the Suffrage associations during the year 1841. On the 5th of May, they held at Newport what is called, in the political jargon of the day, a "mass” convention, - meaning, we suppose, a meeting of the “ masses” of the people. How many were present at it, we are not informed; but those who did come passed many resolutions, and made many speeches, but adopted no definitive measures. They held an adjourned meeting at Providence, on the 5th of July, when they resolved by their own sovereign authority, without any sanction of law or usage, and without having been even nominally appointed or delegated by the towns to perform such an act, " that a convention of the people at large should be called for the formation of a republican constitution.” They recommended, that all the towns should choose delegates, in the proportion of one to every thousand inhabitants, to meet at Providence on the 4th of October, “ for the purpose aforesaid."* Meetings were held, in pursuance of this notice, “ in nearly all the towns of the State,” of course, without any legal formalities, any person taking a part in them, and casting a vote, who saw fit. The whole number of these nominal votes is not known, there being no record of the proceedings ; but it was said to be about 7,000, the whole population of the State being rather more than 108,000. “A large majority” of the delegates thus chosen met in convention, and after one adjournment, completed the draft of a constitution, which they determined to submit “ to the people" for adoption on the 27th, 28th, and 29th days of December. The convention likewise assumed the power to determine who should be allowed to vote for or against their constitution. The voters were required to be Ameri
* We are indebted for most of these facts and citations to “ Governor Dorr's inaugural message to his legislature, on the 5th of May, 1842.”
can citizens, twenty-one years of age, and having their domicile in the State, " but without any limitation of sex, color, place of nativity, or any fixed period of residence whatev
Of course, no fault could be found with such a right of suffrage on the score of illiberality.
In the constitution itself, which was commonly called the “ People's Constitution," the elective franchise was a little more restricted. The right of voting was given to every white male citizen of the United States, of the age of twentyone years, who has resided in this State for one year, and in the town where he votes six months."
With the excep: tion of requiring one year's residence, instead of two, and admitting naturalized citizens to vote without a freehold qualification, this provision coincided with the corresponding one in the “ Låndholder's Constitution.” These two exceptions are evidently of slight importance, and in nearly every other important particular, the two instruments were alike. Open meetings were to be held in the several towns, on the three specified days in December, to receive the votes of those who came personally to accept or reject the " People's Constitution”; and those who, from sickness or other causes, may be unable to attend and vote,” were requested to write their names on the back of a ticket, cause it to be certified by the signature of another person, and send it to the meeting on either of the three days next succeeding the three days already mentioned. The business of receiving votes was extended in this anomalous way through a whole week.
During the first three days, about 9,000 votes were collected from the hands of the voters themselves, though with how much caution the pretensions of such voters were scrutinized in these informal and illegal meetings, we are left to imagine. During the remaining three days, through the privilege of going about to the citizens' houses and obtaining their votes, the names of about 5,000 more were handed in, making an aggregate of 14,000. As the adult white male population of the State was supposed to be about 22,000, the friends of extended suffrage at once declared, that their constitution was supported by the votes of more than three fifths of the people. That the grossest frauds were practised in order to obtain this nominal majority cannot be doubted, whether we consider the extravagant and unprecedented character of the plan for obtaining and counting the votes, the entire absence of legal guards and checks, and the fact that, on subsequent trials, under an elective franchise equally liberal, when the party used every effort to bring out their entire strength, for the undisputed control of the State was the prize at issue, they were never able to muster much more than half of the number which they claimed on this occasion. There was a show of fairness at the time, caused by offering all their votes, each of which was indorsed with the name of the person presenting it, for examination to the General Assembly; but that body, of course, took no notice of the proposal, as it did not recognize the legality of any part of the proceedings. “The People's convention,” also, authorized the secretaries to copy the registry of the voters or the votes themselves, for the use of
* Potter's Considerations on the Rhode Island Question, p. 19.
any person who applied for them. But when individuals began to take advantage of this permission, the “Suffrage Association ” of Providence actually undertook to overrule the order of the convention, countermanded this authority, and prevented the issue of any more copies.
To give some idea of the gross character of the frauds which were practised, we extract a passage from Mr. Potter's pamphlet.
“In the town of Newport, they have long been charged with committing the greatest frauds, and the reason they have never attempted to disprove these charges is, probably, because they could not be refuted. They claimed to have obtained 1,207 votes for the people's constitution, of whom they say 317 were freemen.
“In making up the whole number of 1,207, they took the names of the soldiers at the United States fort, of the people at work for the government at Fort Adams, and of people who had been, for a long time, gone to sea, or absent from the State. And, from an actual and careful examination of the list of their voters, it is estimated by a person, who is probably better qualified 10 judge than any other man in that town, that not more than 750, at most, out of the 1,207, were qualified to vote even upon the very liberal terms of the people's constitution, which admitted foreigners to vote for it, and required no specific period of residence. And when, only three months afterwards, in March, 1842, the vote was taken upon the legal constitution, and every
person, who had resided in the State two years, was admitted to vote, and only foreigners and the transient population excluded, the people's party, notwithstanding they brought every man to the polls, could only obtain 361 votes against it
. Here is a falling off from 1,207, when they took the vote in their own way, to 361, when it was taken in legal town meeting, where the votes were challenged, and the transient population excluded. both parties together, at this same town meeting, could only obtain 1,091 votes, while the people's party claimed to have obtained for theirs, 1,207 votes.
“Again : they claim to have obtained, in Newport, 317 freemen for the people's constitution. The same gentleman, before referred to, who personally knows almost every freeman in the town, estimates that, at least, ninety of these were no freemen at all. And, of the others, a great number voted merely as an expression of opinion, and some for party purposes. How else, if there was no fraud, can it be accounted for, that, in the legal town meeting, where the very same freemen voted, subject, however, to a legal scrutiny, this vote fell off from 317 to 102, and that both parties together could only obtain 475. At the town meeting in December, the people's party had all their own way. The other was conducted according to law, although the same people voted, and every effort was made on both sides.
“Such frauds as these would be most likely to be committed in, the cities and large manufacturing towns, such as Newport, Providence, Smithfield, Cumberland, Warwick, &c. In a great many of the country towns, the vote was probably very fairly conducted.”
We have now come to the third period that we indicated, and the whole State seems to present
- the confusion of king Agramant's camp.” There are the government and the General Assembly, legally organized under the charter, exercising an authority which had not before been questioned for two hundred years, and firmly supported, for the time being, by the whole body of the freeholders, and a large portion of the other well informed and respectable inhabitants. There is the “ People's Constitution,” alleged to be sanctioned and adopted by a great majority of the entire population, and only waiting the short time appointed by its friends to be put in operation, and to claim absolute sovereignty in the State. There is the “ Landholders' Constitution," abiding a verdict of approval or rejection, to be rendered in a few weeks by the whole body of voters empowered to act
pp. 58, 59.