THE DORR REBELLION
An Election Day Sermon
James Ishmael Ford
4 November 2012
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…
First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
When the History committee released its new booklet, Pastor’s Rest: The Burial Ground of the First Unitarian Church of Providence at Swan Point Cemetery, despite the less than grab your lapel’s and yell buy me title, knowing better I quickly claimed a copy for myself, and at the first free moment, which was lunch, I started reading it. It’s what I expected, really good, and really interesting, although truthfully, more than anything whetting my appetite for a full on history of our church. Our history is intertwined with that of our city and our state and our country and it’s been too long since that history has been updated in a book length study.
One of the things I liked most about this particular little volume and which makes me want that larger investigation, is that while it acknowledges the ministers of our church, even using that list of my often illustrious predecessors as handy chronological markers, it also provides some wonderful pocket biographies of our non clergy members who were significant in some manner in the life of our larger community. Again, just a small representative sample of our really amazing gang.
For instance, two who are mentioned are Sullivan Dorr and his son Thomas, both members of our congregation who are now interred at our Burial Ground at Swan Point. Sullivan was born in Boston in 1778. Still in his teens he went to the Pacific Northwest, where he entered the fur trade. By the time he was twenty he continued his Westward migration, ending up in China and spending five years there engaged in various business activities, my guess is selling American furs to the Chinese and importing Chinese goods to America. Eventually Sullivan returned to the States and settled here in Providence, where he became a prominent member of our congregation.
In my wanderings about the web I stumbled upon a small if perhaps strange factoid, half a century after his death, Sullivan Dorr’s house, like our Meeting House, another architectural marvel from John Holden Greene, would be the site for the funeral of our native son the horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft. I have no idea why. Yes, a digression.
It was, of course, Sullivan’s son, Thomas Wilson Dorr, who becomes the more significant historical figure in our state’s history. A native of Providence, born here in 1805, he grew up within the warm embrace of this congregation, and spent a lot of time within the walls of this Meeting House. Except for electricity, he would recognize this room. Thomas was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty, and was elected to the General Assembly at twenty-nine.
And he would become a central figure in the move toward universal suffrage. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the governing document for our state was still its Colonial Charter. Like many other colonial era documents, the Charter limited the vote to people who owned real estate. But by the beginning of the 1840s Rhode Island had become the last state that limited the vote that way. Now, there are some points to keep in mind. At this time we’re eighty years from that culmination of this tide toward full electoral representation within our republic. In fact at this point it wasn’t even a move toward universal male suffrage. While Thomas appeared to support a larger ideal at first, under pressure from the European immigrants who formed the backbone of the movement in the state, he dropped that demand and led a movement simply advocating universal white male suffrage. But even that small step was challenged.
In 1841, in the face of the fact the Charter had no provision for amendment, and that those in power felt no particular need to reform, Thomas led an insurrection, what is now called the “Dorr Rebellion.” He was a leading figure in an extralegal “People’s convention” that created a new constitution with universal white male suffrage. Then in the following year using that document Thomas was elected governor. Unfortunately there was also another governor at the time, elected under the prevailing laws, and occupying the State House. He was not pleased at this turn of events and appealed to the Federal government. In response President Tyler sent in the troops.
While this was shaping up, the majority of the state’s militia, mostly Irish immigrants, threw in with the insurrection and Governor Dorr, as his follower called him, and as history tends to remember him. The smell of gunpowder was in the air. The rebellion culminated with Governor Dorr and his troops dragging a cannon up Benefit street to the armory, not I gather, the one we drive by today, but close by, with the intention of blowing open the doors and commandeering the weapons and ammunition stored there. Among the defenders inside the arsenal were his father, Sullivan, a brother and two uncles.
The weather was damp and the cannon failed to fire. And with that fizzle the rebellion also fell apart. Thomas Door fled to exile, later returned to Providence, was tried and convicted of treason. He served a year in solitary confinement before being pardoned. A broken man, he died nine years later. He was then, as I’ve mentioned, buried not far from his father in our Burial Ground.
We are on the cusp of our national and local elections. This is, I believe, the most momentous presidential election of my lifetime. Considering the era I’ve lived through I think that’s saying something. And, these contests are heated, as they should be. Issues of enormous import, while ironically for the most part not directly debated by the contending candidates and their surrogates, definitely are hanging in the balance.
I find some of the calls for toning down the rhetoric bizarre, as if everyone was equally off base. Elections are filled with prevarication and half-truths. But, I’ve never before witnessed a presidential candidate who has so blatantly and consistently lied, telling one group one thing and within a couple of hours telling another group something completely different. Both speeches caught on film, but when called on it, simply doubling down and continuing, and apparently and appallingly without costing him support. It becomes easy enough to see how circumstances can pile up enough that counter conventions are called, and people end up dragging canons down Benefit Street. And, fortunately, we’re not at that state of affairs. But, we are being called to notice just how important what is going on is, and we are being called to action.
Now, as I’m talking politics, and we are two days from that most important of elections, let’s review what is considered appropriate, or at least legal, to be said from this high pulpit. The relevant constitutional position is enshrined in the First Amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” The point here is not to protect the state from the church, but to protect the many churches from the state, to prevent co-option of one religion into the state. This is often missed in the contemporary dialogue, particularly I think by those of us on the left side of the political spectrum. Until the middle of the last century as elections rolled around preachers climbed into their pulpits and railed against whomever they felt they should rail against, and in favor of those who they saw as the right person for the times.
Then, in 1954 Senator Lyndon Johnson was outraged at how some ultra right groups with non-profit status went after him in the run up for his first re-election campaign. While still nominally a junior senator, history has shown one should think twice before messing with Lyndon Johnson. In response to the attacks he rammed through amendments to the IRS codes restricting non-profits, including churches from endorsing or opposing candidates for office.
This is not the time to ask how an IRS code can contradict the plain language of the First Amendment, other than to note some churches mostly representing theological stances I find at best confusing, and at worst horrific, whatever, are taking principled stands against this code and endorsing candidates from their pulpits. That said, as things are today the single restriction on our freedom of religion and of speech as it touches on politics, is the endorsement or opposition to the election of a political candidate. Okay?
Pretty much since our Republic was formed, actually from well before, we are that old of a congregation, on the Sunday ahead of national elections, our ministers serving here have climbed into the high pulpit and have recalled us to our deeper principles, to remind us of our ideals, our hopes and our aspirations – and to ask that we take those principles, hopes and aspirations with us in our hearts as we walk into our voting booths.
So, what are the principles that inform us today, in this congregation, the living community of our First Unitarian Church? Many think it is whatever anyone of us thinks it is. And there is a small but important truth there. We all have an escape clause within our repeated assertion there is no creedal test to be a member of this church. That said, reducing our theology to merely believing whatever we want, is failing our faith. Our way is one of full on engagement and we are all of us challenged, and I strongly suggest, when we sign our membership book, we have promised to take up that challenge to bring what we believe into this place and then to test it, challenge it, engage it, within our hearts and with our minds and among our community. Believing what you want is not our way, believing what you have tested and found overwhelmingly compelling, is.
Now, we’re given some tools to apply in this radically free and deeply responsible search for meaning, in particular, two. First, is our radical call to notice the preciousness of each and every one of us. So, if this is confusing, yes, it means Adolf Hitler, it means Saddam Hussein, it means Osama bin Laden. It also means you and you and you. And, there is that second point, that second tool, that second lens, if you will that second truth, which informs both the why and how of our commitment to the individual.
Our precious individuality takes its shape from, is sustained by, and is resolved within a web of relationships that is more intimate than words can ever convey. We, in one attempt at putting words to this, knowing from the beginning it will fall short of the reality, are one family. We are, all of us, one family. And within this reality of deep intimacy, we are accountable to each other for what we do.
From that responsibility, what do I see flowing from these principles into civic life? Well, I think we are called to care for the planet as our mother. At the same time I think being able to set up and do business with a minimum of interference is in fact deeply important. But, along the way not to abuse others, or to poison the planet is a central part of the deal. I think in order to have a place in the world of commerce or art or religion or the governance of our lives, to make healthful decisions, means having access to the best possible education as far up the line as your interests and abilities can take you. Similarly, I think access to some basic level of health care for everyone, no matter who they are or how much money they have, is foundational. And, when we grow old, or are too ill, or infirm, for whatever reasons, we have access to a pension, not to live the life of Riley, but to have dignity in our lives. That’s my short list of critical conclusions drawn from my understanding of the play of the individual and the communal, of the mystery of interaction within interdependence.
And, life is complex. Would you have joined the Dorr Rebellion, dragging that cannon to the armory doors? Or, was it not enough? Or, was it wrong headed and wrong timed and you would have been inside the armory? We had people who belonged to this congregation on every side of that issue. So, I don’t pretend to omniscience. But, you’ve called me to give you my best.
And I have.