The presidential canvas of 1840 served as a catalyst for democratic reform in the former slave-trading State of Rhode Island, which still limited voting to property-holding requirements. There were black people in the State who were barred from voting; of those who occupational data exists 85 were laborers, 27 pilot-mariners, 14 barbers, and 10 carters and draymen. Abolitionists were not well-thought of in antebellum Rhode Island – it is recalled that the colony had surpassed Liverpool as the center of the transatlantic slave trade by 1750 and that State’s post-Revolution prosperity was built with ill-gotten wealth. Thomas W. Dorr was a former Whig in the reform-minded Democratic party.
Black Suffrage in Rhode Island
“Haunting the [Rhode Island] People’s Convention and earlier [Rhode Island Suffrage] Association gatherings was the issue of extending the franchise to blacks. The question had arisen at September 1841 meetings of the Providence Suffrage Association, when a black barber of the city, Alfred Niger, was proposed as treasurer of the local group.
Nominating him was an outspoken opponent of black suffrage who had acted, he explained, to discover “how many “wolves in sheep’s clothing” [i.e., abolitionists] there were among them.”
Niger’s nomination was defeated, and hotly contested resolutions were introduced urging the convention to restrict the vote to whites in the new constitution. On behalf of the black community, Dorr and [Benjamin] Arnold introduced an eloquent resolution which argued that the Association’s claim to defend popular rights would be undermined if blacks were excluded from the electorate . . . But there was much opposition. One delegate from Smithfield opposed granting the vote to blacks because, he explained to the presiding officer of the convention, if they could vote they could also be “elected to office; and a n***** might occupy the chair where your honor sits. A pretty look that would be.”
Other influential men, such as [Samuel] Atwell and Duttee J. Pearce, opposed black suffrage on the grounds that a constitution with such a provision would never be ratified in Rhode Island. When the issue finally came to a final count (on a motion to strike the word “white” from the specifications of the electorate) only eighteen delegates upheld the rights of blacks; forty-six voted no.
(Dorr’s Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849, Marvin E. Gettleman, Random House, 1973, excerpt pp. 46-47)