Anti-Dorrite African-Americans in Antebellum Rhode Island
In “Strange Bedfellows“, sometime ProJo book reviewer Erik Chaput and Russell J. DeSimone explain how free blacks in antebellum Rhode Island joined forces with the conservative Law and Order party to help put down the egalitarian and populist Dorr Rebellion.
[I]n Rhode Island, forces loyal to Governor King, including some 200 black men from Providence, summarily arrested hundreds of suspected Dorrites. The Law and Order forces, a coalition of Whigs and conservative Democrats, needed all the troops they could get their hands on because many of the state militia units were loyal to Dorr. Black participation in squashing the rebellion made a deep impression on William Brown, the grandson of slaves who had once been owned by the famous merchant turned abolitionist Moses Brown. At numerous points in his memoir, William Brown pointed out that many blacks “turned out in defense” of the newly formed Law and Order party. The “colored people,” according to Brown, “organized two companies to assist in carrying out Law and Order in the State.” One Dorrite broadside viciously depicted blacks at a table with dogs eating and drinking like barbarians at the conclusion of the rebellion. Indeed, the Law and Order party was frequently referred to as the “nigger party” by the Dorrites.
Ironically, the disenfranchised black allies of the Law and Order party helped to put down a rebellion that claimed to speak on behalf of the disenfranchised. Indeed, the black men who made such an impression on Brown played a key role in suppressing a rebellion that they once had every intention of joining because of its egalitarian ethos. Just as ironically, blacks’ support for the Charter government, a relic of Rhode Island’s colonial past, helped secure their voting rights when the state approved a new constitution in 1843. The former slave and staunch abolitionist Frederick Douglass maintained in his autobiography that the efforts of black and white abolitionists “during the Dorr excitement did more to abolitionize the state than any previous or subsequent work.” One effect of the “labors,” according to Douglass, “was to induce the old law and order party, when it set about making its new constitution, to avoid the narrow folly of the Dorrites, and make a constitution which should not abridge any man’s rights on account of race or color.” This legal triumph, the only instance in antebellum history where blacks regained the franchise after having it revoked, was rooted both in the particular political and economic situations of Providence’s black community and in the Revolutionary rhetoric that was part and parcel of Dorr’s attempt at extralegal reform.
It’s a very interesting read and explanation of how politics did, indeed, bring together these strange bedfellows.