Chepachet Baptist Church

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Tyler and the Dorr Rebellion

It was probably inevitable that the Rhode Island constitutional crisis and the resulting activities by Thomas Dorr and his supporters would soon involve the federal government. As a result of the impressive vote in support of the People's Constitution in December, 1841, and the failure of the vote on the Freemans' (or Landholders') constitution in March, 1842, Governor Samuel Ward King, the Charter Governor of Rhode Island, had experienced two very visible failures which together could be construed not only as serious political defeats but as important milestones on a road that could lead to the dissolution of his regime. Facing another such milestone in mid-April — the scheduled election under the Peoples' Constitution — he turned for help to the Federal Government.

President John Tyler.

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On April 4, he dispatched a delegation to Washington bearing a letter appealing to President Tyler for support. In this he asked the President to issue a proclamation and send a military officer to convince the Dorrites that "in a contest with the government of the state they would be involved with a contest with the government of the United States." 1 A few day later, on April 10, Tyler heard from the other side of the dispute when he received a visit from Dr. John A. Brown of Providence representing the Suffrage Party.2

President Tyler was in an interesting position.  He was by sentiment a Democrat, but had been elected Vice President on a fusion ticket headed by General Harrison, a Whig. He became President in April, 1841, when Harrison died a month after being inaugurated. Tyler's cabinet originally was dominated by Whigs, but many had resigned and become critics of his administration. His own politics probably inclined him to favor somewhat the principles of the Dorrites, but some members of his cabinet and many congressional supporters would be expected to favor the Charter Government. Henry Clay, a leading Whig and by then critic of Tyler, spoke out strongly against Dorr. 3 Tyler, facing reelection without the support of the Party that had elected him, was trying to establish an independent base at the time of the Dorr Rebellion. Mishandling a dramatic and much-watched insurrection (reminiscent of Shay's Rebellion just after the American Revolution) would almost certainly destroy any small chances he had to win reelection. This, at any rate, did not happen. Tyler's handling of the Dorr rebellion, in fact, turned out to be a classic case study in shrewd politics and excellent common sense.

Having assured John A. Brown on April 10 that the Administration would not interfere,4 Tyler responded on April 11 (in a letter shortly made public) to King's letter of April 4, refusing King's requests, stating that he had no constitutional authority to anticipate insurrectionary movements, and could only intervene if there were an actual armed insurrection (stating correctly that there was none at that time). He added that it was not for him to interfere in the relations between the citizens of a state and their government. He went on to say, however, (in what could be construed as a warning to the Dorrites), that he would deal with the legitimate requests of the existing government until it had been proven that it had been replaced in legal and peaceable proceedings. He then praised the people of Rhode Island for their moderation and good sense, saying that he did not expect any violence to ensue, and ended with a pointed comment (clearly aimed at King and the Charter government) that he expected that the high-mindedness of all concerned would lead to the redress of legitimate grievances as an example to all "North American republics, of change without revolution, and a redress of grievances without force and violence."5  Put bluntly, his message to King was: you are the legitimate government, but you've got a problem here, you had better hurry up and fix it by addressing the grievances, not by asking me to pull your chestnuts out of the fire militarily.

Senator Henry Clay, a vocal opponent of Dorr's Rebellion, from Colton, Calvin, The Life and Times of Henry Clay, Vol. I, New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1846, frontispiece.

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Tyler, however, was not about to let events get ahead of him, he was aware of the potential for embarrassment by insurgent seizures of U.S. military property, and he did not want to be caught unprepared if the Army was needed. On the very same day that he replied to King, an order was sent out from the Army in Washington to the Army Commander at Fort Adams in Newport, Rhode Island , to take quiet measures to ensure that all army supplies in the vicinity would be safe from seizure by improper persons,6 and on April 25, the Army ordered reinforcements to New York, a day's sail from Newport.7 Subsequently the garrison in Fort Adams itself was augmented. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, then General-in-Chief of the United States Army, and later a hero in the Mexican War, sent instructions to Newport at the same time asking for daily reports on the state of affairs in Rhode Island, with a follow-through instruction that these be obtained by "all honorable means," using respectable civilians, not military personnel.8 Tyler was keeping a close, but very low-key watch on things.

When the Peoples' Government met in May, Governor King on May 4, again appealed to President Tyler, transmitting a resolution of the Charter Assembly stating that there was an insurrection in Rhode Island, as evidenced by the "lawless assemblages" — Dorr's legislature — that had met, and again appealing for federal help.9 President Tyler responded a few days later, gently pointing out that the "lawless assemblage" had already dispersed (Dorr's legislature adjourned after three days) and that there was no violence.10 He added that he was reluctant to employ military force, but would if there occurred violence that the state could not put down, affirming, however, his confidence in the good sense of people to resolve this issue — pointing again to the peaceful path to redress grievances.

Pursuant to a resolution of the People's Legislature, Dorr wrote to Tyler informing him that this legislature was now in session.11

Samuel Ward King, Governor of Rhode Island, 1839-43, from National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume IX, p. 397, New York: James T. White & Company, 1899.

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Tyler, it seems, was keeping on top of things to a much greater extent than was (or is) generally recognized. On May 9, two days after his official letter to King (and perhaps after receiving the communication from Dorr), he sent a blunt confidential letter telling Governor King that he should grant amnesty and call for a constitutional convention to liberalize the constitution as an alternative to violence — reminding King that half the state was on the other side of the issue from King, and strongly suggesting that he had it on good authority that such concessions would end the crisis.12 King responded that he agreed with Tyler and pointed out that the upcoming legislative session in June would probably issue a call for a convention for the formation of a new constitution.13

About this time, Dorr arrived in Washington and had an interview with Tyler.14  He was accompanied by former Congressman Dutee Pearce of Newport, a Dorr supporter and member of the People's Legislature. Pearce had served in the federal House of Representatives from 1825 through 1837; Tyler had served in the U.S. Senate from 1827 through 1836. Their terms therefore overlapped in Washington for nine years. It is inconceivable that they were not well known to each other, although we have no knowledge as to how cordial their acquaintance had been. Pearce may have arranged for Dorr's meeting with the President, even though he was cautious in testimony at Dorr's treason trial about showing knowledge of the details of such a meeting.15

Subsequently, Daniel Webster chaired a secret meeting in New York aimed at resolving the dispute. Dutee Pearce, Burrington Anthony, John Harris, and Dorr himself represented the Dorrites and John Whipple represented the Charter forces. Whipple proposed that the Rhode Island courts be asked to resolve the issue, but Dorr and his companions suffered from no illusions as to what the result would be, given Chief Justice Durfee's by-now public statements on the matter, and the negotiations went no further. Webster's effort must have been made either on Tyler's initiative or with his hearty support — it is difficult to believe that any Secretary of State, even one as politically autonomous as Webster, would have conducted such a potentially explosive negotiation without prior presidential approval.

On May 16, Dorr returned to Rhode Island from Washington by way of New York, where he was well received by sympathetic politicians, and on May 18, his forces attempted to seize the Cranston Street Arsenal in Providence. Although this attempt failed, and Dorr once more left Rhode Island, Governor King on May 25 sent a frantic letter to Tyler, advising him that Dorr was organizing forces to anticipate his return to the state, and that he was organizing bands in other states with which to invade Rhode Island, appealing to Tyler to reinforce the federal garrison at Fort Adams and make it available to him if requested.16

Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the United States Army during the Dorr Rebellion, from Scott, Winfield, Memoirs of Lieutenant General Scott, LLD, New York: Sheldon & Company, 1864, frontispiece. General Scott sent out orders, starting in April, 1842, to secure military property and augment federal armed forces in the vicinity should federal intervention prove necessary.

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Tyler, in response on May 28, adopting the air of someone who was probably very well-informed as to what was happening, politely dismissed the suggestion that serious bands of armed men were about to invade Rhode Island, and affirming his confidence that King could deal with any situation within its borders — as he had indicated he could in his previous letter to King. Dorr's position had always been that he would not seek outside support from other states unless the federal government intervened, a position he may have conveyed to Tyler personally.17  This same day, Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer, at Tyler's direction, wrote to Colonel James Bankhead, the US Army commander recently sent to Newport, asking him quietly to find out from both sides just what was happening in terms of military preparations; he made further inquiries the following day of the Army commander in Boston.18

At about this time, Major William Gibbs McNeill of New York, not a citizen of Rhode Island, was suddenly named Major General and commander-in-chief of the Rhode Island Charter Government forces reporting to Governor King.19  McNeill, a civil engineer, an official of the Providence and Stonington Railroad, and West Point graduate, was a Tammany Hall factotum in the Democratic party of New York City. Dorr had met him in New York on May 15, and had, perhaps jokingly, asked him to head Dorr's own forces in Rhode Island.20 He may have met McNeill on a previous occasion.21 Burrington Anthony, a strong Dorr supporter from Providence, also met him in New York on the same occasion, and concluded that McNeill "had expressed himself as a political friend." 22 McNeill's sister, incidentally, married George Washington Whistler, a friend of McNeill's. One of their children was James A. McNeill Whistler, the painter. General McNeill's sister, therefore, was "Whistler's Mother" portrayed in the famous painting.

These events strike a modern observer as strange and interesting. Why would the largely Whig Charter forces name a New York Democrat to command their troops? We may never know the answer to this, but it is interesting to note that McNeill, at least after the Dorr Rebellion, is reported to have been a frequent guest at the White House, and later a very close friend and business associate of the Tyler family.23 Even before the Dorr Rebellion, he was apparently a person trying to build political support for Tyler in New York City. Put bluntly, he was a Tyler man.

General William Gibbs McNeill, commander of the Charter forces under Governor King, and friend of the Tyler family, from National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume IX, p. 47, New York: James T. White & Company, 1899.

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According to Dutee Pearce, McNeill was of the same political party as Dorr, and he had heard nothing from him "to contradict the supposition as to [him] being friendly to the suffrage cause and success in Rhode Island.24 Our speculation here is that Tyler maneuvered to get a person loyal to him and fairly neutral politically, into the position of commanding the Charter forces. To do so, he may have used the argument that such a person would best coordinate action between the Rhode Island and Federal troops; this appointment might even have been part of an agreement in which Tyler committed himself to use the federal troops in certain eventualities. In any case, it probably gave Tyler a great deal of control over the situation — and supports the argument that Tyler was trying to control events.

On June 3, Daniel Webster, Tyler's Secretary of State, sent the President a letter Webster had received from a friend he had asked (at Tyler's request) to visit Rhode Island and report back on events. The unidentified friend had visited leading people on both sides of the issue, including King and one of Dorr's most confidential advisors from the beginning (Atwell?), and reported that support for the insurgents was waning, that no one but King and his council felt the threat of out-of-state invasion was real, and that the Dorrite insurgents were keeping up appearances to save face, to keep up the pressure for change by peaceable means, and to support those who might be arrested by King.25

Secretary of State Daniel Webster, from Curtis, George Ticknor, Life of Daniel Webster, Vol. I, Second Edition, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1870, frontispiece. Secretary Webster used friends in New England to gather information for President Tyler from both sides of the Dorr Rebellion.

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On June 22, however, Tyler was sent word from Colonel Bankhead at Newport, that Dorr was about to reenter the state, that an attempt had been made on the guns of the artillery company in Warren, and that cannon were being mounted in Chepachet.26 Other communications of a similar nature were sent to the President at this time, and King wrote once more on June 23, calling for federal troops to sustain him. 27

Tyler was not about to be finessed into taking precipitate action. He wrote back on June 25, politely reminding King that when the legislature was in session, as now it was, a request for intervention had to come from it, not King, thus deftly parrying King's request and buying himself some time.28 On the 29th, Tyler dispatched his Secretary of War, John C. Spencer, to Rhode Island, armed with full authority to order military intervention if necessary "to prevent bloodshed," but by the time he arrived, Dorr's forces had disbanded, and it was not necessary to exercise this authority.29

Secretary of War John Canfield Spencer by Frederick R. Spencer, 1836. Oil on canvas; Union College Permanent Collection, Union College, Schenectady, New York. Spencer was dispatched by President Tyler to Rhode Island in June 1842 with authority to order military intervention in the conflict if necessary.

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We may be permitted the speculation that Tyler, perhaps through Webster, was responsible for Dutee Pearce's visit to Chepachet during the climactic events there when he reminded Dorr of the call for a new constitutional convention and urged him to disband his forces; if so, Pearce may well have known confidentially of Spencer's authority to intervene with federal force and have conveyed this confidentially to Dorr. Pearce also told Dorr in Chepachet that the Charter forces under McNeill were not going to attack Dorr immediately. In fact, an argument can be made that McNeill intentionally dragged his feet, pending Pearce's ultimately successful journey to Chepachet. McNeill does not move decisively on Chepachet until Dorr's forces are disbanded.30

There are many unanswered questions regarding Tyler's role in the Dorr Rebellion, and the written record is far from complete, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Tyler monitored the situation very carefully, quietly augmented and supplied his available military resources, but showed great reluctance to use force unless absolutely necessary. It seems that he served as a behind-the-scenes honest broker in sympathetic communication with both sides, urging restraint on each, and actually worked very hard for a peaceable political solution to the crisis. Tyler himself later reported to the House of Representatives that "the strong hope was indulged, and expressed, that all the difficulties would disappear before an enlightened policy of conciliation and compromise." He added:

The desire of the Executive was, from the beginning, to bring the dispute to a termination, without the interposition of the military power of the United States; and it will continue to be a subject of self-congratulation that this leading object of policy was finally accomplished. The Executive resisted all entreaties, however urgent, to depart from this line of conduct.31

In sum, it seems the President of the United States watched the events leading up to the Dorr Rebellion with great interest, kept himself well-informed as to what was happening on both sides, was well -prepared for action if needed, maneuvered a person close to him into the command position of the Charter forces to keep control of events, was reluctant to use force unless absolutely necessary, and took a very active role in urging both sides to work out their grievances — subtly using both the threat of force and the threat to withhold force as means of urging a compromise solution and preventing bloodshed. We believe that his energetic and successful behind-the-scenes efforts to obtain a peaceful solution are not as well recognized as they should be.

Chepachet Free Will Baptist Church


ENDNOTES

1. U.S. House of Representatives, 28th Congress, 1st Session, Rhode Island—Interference of the Executive in the Affairs of, Report 546, commonly called "Burke's Report" (after the Chair of the Committee presenting this report), June 7, 1844, pp. 656-57. See also, pp. 669-72. Henceforth, this report will be referred to as "BR".

2. Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion, A Study in American Radicalism: 1833-49, New York: Random House, 1973, pp. 95-96.

3. BR, pp. 768-77.

4. Gettleman, p. 96.

5. BR, pp. 658-59.

6. BR, p. 700.

7. Ibid.

8. BR, p. 701.

9. BR, p. 673.

10. BR, pp. 674-75.

11. BR, p. 675.

12. BR, p. 676.

13. BR, pp. 676-77.

14. Gettleman, pp. 108-110.

15. BR, pp. 876-77. Note that Pearce testified, "Witness [Pearce] was informed, after he left Washington, that defendant [Dorr] saw the President."

16. BR, p. 681.

17. BR, p. 682.

18. BR, pp. 682-84.

19. BR, P. 904.

20. See BR, p. 900.

21. BR, p. 904.

22. BR, p. 914.

23. See Seager, Robert, II, and Tyler Too, New York: McGraw Hill, 1963, pp. 285, 316, 368ff, 597n.

24. BR, p. 906.

25. BR, pp. 685-86.

26. BR, p. 687.

27. BR, pp. 688-89.

28. BR, pp. 689-90.

29. BR, pp. 684-85; 697.

30. Mowry concluded that McNeill delayed marching on Chepachet (pp. 213-14), but he did not advance our hypothesis that this delay was deliberate and designed to give negotiations time to reach fruition.

31. BR, p. 654.

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