Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

under its provisions. If the true issue could have been presented at this time between the friends and the opponents of the illegal measures adopted by the Suffrage party, there is no question that this “ Landholders' Constitution” would have been adopted by a considerable majority. But unluckily, many of the freeholders were so fanatically attached to the charter, that they resisted every attempt to place the government upon a new basis ; and when the day of voting came, they either stayed away from the polls, or threw their votes against the new constitution, without reflecting, that such conduct in fact strengthened the hands of their greatest opponents. The Suffrage party, also, exerted themselves strenuously against it, and the consequence was, that the new instrument was defeated, though by a small majority. The numbers were 8,689 to 8,013. At least one thousand freeholders voted against it, for the reason we have just stated, and this number, being deducted from the larger vote, reduces it to a minority; and thus it is conclusively shown, even without reckoning the freemen who stayed away from the polls on the same grounds which induced many of their fellows to cast a negative vote, that the major part of the people, reckoned under a most liberal elective franchise, were opposed to what was facetiously denominated the “ People's Constitution.”

The result of this trial also established another curious fact ; that the same party which boasted of obtaining a vote of 14,000 in December, when there were no checks or legal restrictions established at their informal assemblies, and consequently every person who pleased voted for himself or brought in a vote by proxy, when they came to another trial, only three months afterwards, under a law nearly or quite as liberal in determining the qualifications of the voters, but guarded by proper formalities, could not muster but about 7,600 votes. And we may mention here, that at several subsequent elections, when the same faction exerted their whole strength, they could throw but little more than 7,000 votes, which is about one third of what might be cast in the State under the present liberal constitution. It is now demonstrated, therefore, — what was believed from the outThe legal government was now still in the hands of the authorities established under the charter, and it was blindly and furiously opposed by a faction, that had just rejected a constitution granting all that they had at first asked, and who were now determined to establish by force an instrument of their own making, confessedly formed, “ not only without the law, but against the law." Their conduct was as violent as their principles were unfounded and absurd. Flags were hung up in the streets of Providence and other places, bearing the motto, " The constitution is established, and it must be maintained.” Meetings were held, and exciting speeches made, denouncing the government and the laws, and exhorting the members of the party to be ready with arms in their hands for a bloody contest in support of their principles. The fame was now fanned by the efforts of politicians in other States, eager to turn this excitement to their own advantage, and careless about the issue of a conflagration which seemed too distant to menace the buildings that sheltered them. The agitation was at its height. Families were divided, and brothers, fathers, and sons were arrayed on opposite sides. In short, a revolution was in progress ; and for what?

that the friends of the soidisant “ People's Constitution” never constituted more than one third of the people of the State.

set,

Because the insurgent party refused to accept, in legal form, from the hands of the constituted authorities, all that they demanded as their due ; but were resolved to establish their claims in their own right, or by their own authority; and, if necessary, to vindicate their pretensions by an armed force, and all the atrocities of a civil war.

The alarm was now general throughout the State, though the focus of agitation was in Providence, where the opponents of the government mustered in greatest force, and were supported by deputations from the laboring population of the manufacturing villages in the neighbourhood, and along the course of the Blackstone. In the agricultural towns, the people, who were chiefly small farmers, were tranquil, and were strongly attached to the existing government. But they had friends and relatives in the city, and they knew not what might be the issue of the struggle, or how soon they might be subjected to a government created by a faction, and established by violence. The General Assembly was firm, and, at an extra session called in March, taking into view the resolutions already passed by the Suffrage party, “ That they will support their Constitution by all necessary means, and repel force by force,” empowered the Governor to issue a proclamation, warning all good citizens against these illegal proceedings ; and they authorized him “ to adopt such measures as in his opinion may be necessary, during the recess of the legislature, to execute the laws, and preserve the State against domestic violence.” They also passed the law called, in the vulgar phrase of

their opponents, the Algerine Act,” making it a high offence, punishable by fine and imprisonment, for any persons to act as officers in illegal town meetings, called for pretended elections, or to signify that they would accept office under such elections ; and declaring further, that if any persons should attempt to exercise any legislative, executive, or ministerial functions of office in the State, by virtue of such pretended elections, or should assemble for the purpose of exercising such functions, they should be deemed guilty of treason, and be punished by imprisonnient for life. It was also provided in the act, that the trials might be held in any part of the State, without regard to the county wherein the offence was committed.

Notwithstanding the terrors of this law, elections under the “ People's Constitution” were held at the appointed time, on the 18th of April, in every town in the State, under such forms as the party saw fit to observe. It was rather difficult to find persons willing to serve, as many declined the dangerous honor. But the vacancies on the nomination list were filled as fast as they were created, and eventually, Thomas W. Dorr was chosen governor, all the executive offices were filled, a full Senate was chosen, and the great part of a House of Representatives. Less than 6,500 votes were cast on this occasion ; while, at an ordinary election under the charter, a year or two before, more than 8,000 freemen voted. Which party, then, had the majority ? About the same time, the legal elections took place, and the Whigs and Democrats of Rhode Island, forgetting their old disputes at this crisis, united under the name of the “ Law and Order Party,” chose Samuel W. King, Esq., governor, and filled the other offices about equally from their respective ranks. Thus, two sets of officers were chosen in the State, both bound to begin the exercise of their functions at the appointed time in May, their adherents being pledged to support them by all necessary means.

The Governor, thinking the crisis contemplated by the legislature had now arrived, made a formal requisition on the President of the United States for assistance, under that provision of the Federal Constitution which requires the national

government to render aid to any State that is threatened with domestic violence. With the unanimous advice and consent of his cabinet, the President replied, in a firm but conciliatory tone, promising the required aid whenever any overt act of violence should be committed. We give the following extract from his letter to Governor King, dated April 11th, 1842.

“I have to assure your Excellency, that, should the time arrive, (and my fervent prayer is, that it may never come,) when an insurrection shall exist against the government of Rhode Island, and a requisition shall be made upon the Executive of the United States to furnish that protection which is guarantied to each State by the Constitution and laws, I shall not be found to shrink from the performance of a duty which, while it would be the most painful, is at the same time the most imperative. I have also to say, that, in such a contingency, the Executive could not look into real or supposed defects of the existing government, in order to ascertain whether some other plan of government proposed for adoption was better suited to the wants, and more in accordance with the wishes of any portion of her citizens. To throw the executive power of this government into any such controversy would be to make the President the armed arbitrator between the people of the different States and their constituted authorities, and might lead to an usurped power, dangerous alike to the stability of the State governments and the liberties of the people.

It will be my duty, on the contrary, to respect the requisitions of that government which has been recognized as the existing government of the State through all time past, until I shall be advised, in regular manner, that it has been altered and abolished, and another substituted in its place, by legal and peaceable proceedings, adopted and pursued by the authorities and people of the State.

Unappalled by this firm language, or by the union in opinion and action of the established authorities of the State and the whole nation against them, the misguided adherents of the Suffrage party continued their preparations for the contest. So menacing was their attitude, that another extra session of the General Assembly was called at Providence, on the 25th of April, to make further provision for the emergency. A firm determination was manifested by this body to support the government, but as a new legislature was to meet in little more than a week at Newport, nothing was done at this session, which lasted only two days, except to authorize the Governor to take measures to protect the public property and to fill vacancies in the militia. The friends of law began now to prepare for defence. Arms and ammunition were obtained, disaffected companies were disbanded, volunteers were enrolled, men of all ages and occupations entered the ranks, frequent drills were held, and the city wore almost the appearance of a camp. Still, many persons hesitated, and the preparations were very incomplete. Some doubted whether the insurgents would dare to proceed to extremities ; some wished to remain neutral in the hour of peril, and then to swell the host of the victors ; and each desired that its opponent should be the first to strike a blow.

The 3d of May arrived, and the officers chosen under the “ People's Constitution ” assembled at Providence, to organize their government. They could not obtain possession of the State House, but they borrowed for the occasion an unfinished wooden building, of small pretensions in point of architecture, that had been intended for a foundery. A procession was formed, consisting of the executive officers and the legislature, with their adherents, and, under a military escort, it marched to this place of assembly. The guard was composed of five hundred men, armed with muskets and ball cartridges, and more than a thousand unarmed persons joined the ranks. The military mounted guard round the building during the hours of session, escorted the “ Governor and from the place of meeting, and kept watch at his house du the night. Mr. Dorr delivered a formal message to his “ Senators and Representatives,” and the usual formalities of legislative meetings were observed, as far as the knowledge and experience of the parties would permit.

The « Governor " earnestly advised his party to adopt active measures at once to seize the State House and other public property ; but a majority of his legislature refused to take such a decisive step, and he has since bitterly complained of their vacillation and timidity at this time, which ruined the cause. His advice was certainly judicious, and if the

VOL. LVIII. — NO. 123. 46

to

« ZurückWeiter »