American Portraits

Thomas Wilson Dorr: The Working Class Right to Vote

In this lesson, students will learn how Thomas Wilson Dorr led an effort to expand the right to vote in Rhode Island, and evaluate the methods he used. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Freedom of Speech image

Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


Other northern states in the late 1790s and early 1800s had drafted new constitutions, which gave most taxpaying white males the right to vote. In 1840, Dorr and his associates raised the issue before Rhode Island legislators. They demanded a new constitution, including the right to vote….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can your purposeful leadership spotlight and contribute to expansion of freedom, even if it does not appear immediately to be successful?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how Thomas Wilson Dorr led an effort to expand the right to vote in Rhode Island, and evaluate the methods he used. They will use this example to be purposeful in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze and evaluate Thomas Wilson Dorr’s purposeful behavior in leading the effort to expand suffrage in Rhode Island for working class men.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of purpose to their own lives.


In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to African American men. The Nineteenth Amendment of 1920 guaranteed it to women. And in 1971, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment extended it to people ages 18 to 20, leading to state governments adapting their constitutions once again to comply with the changes. However, in the mid-1800s, there were many men in America who did not have the right to vote. In 1840, Thomas Wilson Dorr and fellow suffragists set out to change that for the working-class men of Rhode Island. They stirred up controversy and set an example for the nation.

In 1840, Rhode Island was still governed according to its original 1663 charter. Under its provisions, all white males who owned at least $137 worth of property could vote. At the time it was written, the majority of the population were farmers and landowners. When the industrial boom hit Rhode Island in the early 1800s, however, a new class emerged. They lived in cities, worked in factories, and often rented housing. Before long, working-class men made up more than 60 percent of the state’s white male population. These men worked, paid taxes, and were subject to the same laws as property owners. However, they could not vote because they did not own the required amount of property.


  • Fifteenth Amendment
  • Nineteenth Amendment
  • Twenty-Sixth Amendment
  • Charter
  • Whig Party
  • Democratic Party
  • People’s Convention
  • Popular sovereignty
  • Landholders’ or Freedmen’s Convention
  • Ecstatic
  • Illegitimate
  • Escalated
  • Arsenal
  • Extralegal
  • Law and Order Party
  • Luther v. Borden
  • Foreshadow

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Dorr’s purpose in leading the People’s Convention?
  • What actions did Dorr take to achieve his goals? To what extent was he successful with each step along the way?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Botelho, Joyce M. Right and Might: The Dorr Rebellion and the Struggle for Equal Rights. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1992.
  • Conley, Patrick T. The Dorr Rebellion: Rhode Island’s Crisis in Constitutional Government. Providence: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1976.
  • Dennison, George M. Dorr War: Republicanism on Trial, 1831–1861.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.
  • Gettleman, Marvin E. The Dorr Rebellion. New York: Random House, 1973.
  • Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
  • King, Dan. The Life and Times of Thomas Wilson Dorr. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.
  • The Dorr Rebellion: When RI Had 2 Governors: New England Historical Society.

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