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Mad Hatters Don't Hold Monopoly on Patriotism

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A version of this is running in the Providence Journal soon. It's perhaps more Rhode Island-specific than my standard effort here (I'm a State Representative there), but I'm posting it for a couple of reasons:

1) Its focus is the Dorr Rebellion, which is one of the most fascinating and under-appreciated popular uprisings in the history of our country, and led to Rhode Island's adoption of a constitution in the 1840s. (A little late in the game -- until then, Rhode Island relied on the Charter granted to it in 1663 by Charles the Second). It deserves to be more widely known.

2) The left is getting better at fighting back against the ridiculous monopolistic claim that the right makes on patriotism and state pride. It's absurd we're in a position such that we must do so, having ever ceded so much ground to begin with. The Rhode Island example is especially stark: It was left-leaning patriots, in the form of labor activists, immigrants, and suffragists, who propelled Rhode Island towards the ratification of its constitution in 1842 via an appeal to the US Constitution's Guarantee Clause. Here I make sure that Rhode Island's reactionary right-wingers know as much, as my state's General Assembly goes back into session next week, and the Tea Partiers urge us to join their fight against unions and immigrant workers.

The signs in Rhode Island shriek: "Illegals Raise Our Taxes!" "Unions Destroy Capitalism and Free Enterprise!"

The Tea Partiers who brandish them absurdly claim a monopoly on concern for the Constitution and knowledge of the will of its authors. (The 80% or so of us who support universal health care also latently long to quarter lobsterbacks.)

But do they care, or even know, that their cause runs so starkly counter to the very effort that won Rhode Island its Constitution, and banished the 1663 Charter afforded us by the Crown? That vast popular uprising was driven by downtrodden immigrant laborers and labor activists, and hence disdained by the political establishment and business class.

These patriots fought against laws that banned those without property from voting, and which gave advantage to the rural towns at the expense of the cities via the so-called "rotten boroughs" system. In modern times, leading Tea Party booster the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition -- formerly, and tellingly, the Shoreline Coalition -- even fights to re-tie voting rights to property ownership, so the wealthy would vote in multiple jurisdictions.

(The notion that immigrants, laborers, and their unions should be celebrated might contradict the Tea Partiers' stilted conception of the of the sentiments of the federal Constitution. But that should hardly matter -- their nullificationist and secessionist sympathies would surely have them agree that the sentiments of a state's constitution should be considered the higher authority.)

It is sadly evident that Tea Partiers would have instinctually aligned with the Law and Order Party's Governor Samuel Ward King, and against the constitutionalist movement that was led by the landholding Thomas Wilson Dorr, but largely manned by disenfranchised recent English and Irish immigrants.

Typically defiant in every which direction, Rhode Island was the first state to abandon the Brits, but the last to forsake the charter they'd granted us. In the 1840s, we were still abiding by the laws granted by Charles the Second, in our Charter of 1663.

Under the Charter, legislators were chosen via a system resembling the Electoral College -- that "rotten boroughs" system -- which skewed the allocation of seats disproportionately in favor of the outlying communities. The franchise was confined to landed, free, white men; as immigrants flocked to our rapidly industrializing cities, eventually only one third of even free white men were eligible to vote, and urban areas had even less representation.

After several failed attempts to reform these laws through legislative action -- many led by Dorr, a state representative from Federal Hill -- suffrage supporters held a "People's Convention," and drafted a more liberal constitution. The suffragists hired as an agitator the great and infamous orator and labor activist, Seth Luther, whose life's work had been to push for government intervention to prevent business from exploiting workers. Thousands marched in the streets of Providence and Newport. The document was put to an extra-legal vote, in which all white men who'd lived in the state for one year could participate -- obviously a far too narrow electorate, but much better than what came before -- and it passed overwhelmingly, even winning majority support of those who could vote under the Charter. A legislature was elected, and a humble Dorr became the "peoples' Governor."

All the while, the anxious and paranoid Samuel King claimed the title of Governor, as per the rules of the Charter, and had no intention of relinquishing it. As Dorr mustered support from Democrats and populists throughout the region, King even called on President John Tyler for military support.

The Dorrites launched an armed attack on the Dexter St arsenal on May 19, 1842. They were rebuffed, and retreated to Chepachet. Dorr fled the state, and the movement fizzled out, hastened by a martial-law crack-down by King and his troops. But the Charter government succumbed to the popular will, ratifying a constitution that dramatically expanded the right to vote, and reapportioned the legislature.

Dorr and Luther were found guilty of treason, but released a year later, because of popular pressure. (Luther lived for some time, but died in a Vermont insane asylum; Dorr died a broken man at the age of 49, but is officially recognized as a former governor of Rhode Island.)

As Rhode Island's Assembly returns to session, progressives ought not cede the mantles of patriotism and state pride to the far right. We must stand by our support for immigrants, labor, and cities -- and do so secure in the knowledge that these values were the driving force behind the adoption of the state constitution which we swear an oath to uphold.