Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Renter's Revolt

History is so fascinating.  I really kick myself that when I was kid, I hated it.  It was the one subject in grade school I had no interest in. This might be one of the reasons that I blog about history so often because I know so little, therefore I learn a lot about it. It is not entirely my fault. It seems that almost every year in grade school we covered just about the same history:  the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II.  The most recent event we ever got to was the Korea War and we barely touched on that.  At that point, the Korean War was 30 years old.  We didn't come close to any current history like Watergate or the space race.

We often went from learning about the American Revolution and went right into the American Civil War covering little of what occurred between these two events.  I was always more interested in the Revolutionary than the Civil War.  I grew in the American Northeast, near many of the pivotal Revolutionary events, I wonder if that is why.  I also wonder if they would have taught us more about the Industrial Revolution, I would have been more engaged.

The Anit-Rent War (or the Renter's Revolution) is one of those events that happened miles away from where I grew up in Rhode Island (among other places) that may have piqued my interest in history. Early in American history only land owners could vote. This may have made sense in an agrarian society where people owned large tracts of land and farmed them. But once the industrial revolutionary occurred, with factories requiring large amounts of people to work in small spaces, this didn't make a lot of sense. Change didn't happen because it didn't make sense, change happened because people saw the injustice and revolted.

In Providence, 12,000 workers (aka renters) had no vote while the 5,000 land owners could.  The Rhode Island Suffrage Association was formed by Thomas Dorr, a Providence lawyer, the People's Party was formed and a constitution ratified by thousands.  If I had only been taught more about how kick-ass "Little Rhody" was when I was a kid, with such awesome figures like Dorr and Roger Williams,  I might not have been so down on  my home state.  Eventually, RI's elected governor, Samuel King, declared martial law and arrested Dorr.  Dorr spent a year in jail.  That's a year of hard labor and solitary confinement.

If you look at a list of RI governors now, you will see Dorr on the list as an extralegal governor.  He never served as official governor.  RI drew up their third state constitution, while Dorr was serving his time, in 1843.  In it, universal white male suffrage was included.  Not perfect, but an improvement.  Progress comes in baby steps.

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