The Dorr Rebellion

ROLE-PLAYS

In 1841, Rhode Island was still operating under its colonial charter, which gave more power to rural areas than growing urban areas like Providence.  A group of reformers in Rhode Island, led by Thomas Dorr, tried to rewrite the state's constitution to broaden representation to include more urban, immigrant laborers. While the struggle eventually led to armed rebellion, it also led to sweeping constitutional reforms.


In this VOXPOP, students take on the roles of Aristocrats, Black Americans, Farmers, Reformers and Laborers, all struggling to define how power should be distributed in Rhode Island. After being introduced to the situation, students work with other members of their group to define their values.


Students then debate and vote on three key issues:

Suffrage - Who should have the right to vote in Rhode Island?

Legislature - How should we distribute power across the state?

Constitution - Who gets to write a state's constitution?


At the end of the VOXPOP, an epilogue video lays out what actually happened.


This VOXPOP was developed in partnership with the Rhode Island State House.

GET STARTED

Role-plays take roughly 60-90 minutes for a class to play through. To run the role-play over multiple days, use the link VOXPOP will send you to re-open your session.

Create a different session for each class that you intend to use this role-play with.

Not sure how sessions work? Feel free to create a session and step through it to get a feel for the role-play. You can create as many sessions as you need.

PREPARE TO LEAD THE ROLE-PLAY BY REVIEWING THIS OUTLINE

OUTLINE

The VOXPOP software will deliver this content to students during the role-play. Use this outline to familiarize yourself with the content of the scenario, the roles students will be assigned and the choices they will be asked to make.

DETAILS

Students: 6 to 50

Running Time: 70-90 minutes (the role-play can be broken into multiple sessions)

FACILITATION GUIDE

BACKGROUND

This video provides historical context.

ROLES

Students are assigned to the following groups:

Aristocrats

Aristocrats believe that only people who pay taxes should have a say in government. In Rhode Island, taxes are paid by landowners, and no one else. We should control how our money is spent!


Farmers

Many Farmers' families have owned land in Rhode Island for generations. They're skeptical about expanding the vote to Laborers, who go wherever jobs are, and aren't committed to the state in the long term.


Black Americans

Black people supported the Reformers until they rejected the idea of Black suffrage. Now they're allied with Farmers and Aristocrats to support the existing government.


Reformers 

Many Reformers are already in positions of power. But they want more Rhode Islanders to have a say in government. We should not ignore the voices of everyday people!


Laborers

Laborers live in cramped cities working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Many are immigrants who came to find work. If they have to follow the state's laws, they should get a say in how those laws are made!

THE ISSUES

These videos will provide students with more detailed background on specific issues.

Suffrage
Who deserves the right to vote?
Proposals students consider:

Suffrage for landowners

Keep the current voting system: only men who own land in the state of RI can vote.


Suffrage for all White men

All adult White men who have lived in RI for over 1 year can vote.

Legislature
How should we distribute power across the state?
Proposals students consider:

Representation by town

Each town and city ward gets one representative in the state legislature. This mirrors the U.S. Senate.


Representation by population

Seats in the legislature are based on population. This mirrors the U.S. House of Representatives.

Constitution
Who gets to write the constitution?
Proposals students consider:

Constitution by legislature

The current state legislature writes a new constitution and puts it to a statewide vote.


Constitution by majority

All citizens of RI, including non-voters, write and vote on a constitution. They don't need government approval.

EPILOGUE

A short video that lets students know what really happened.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Here are a few suggested discussion questions to pose at the end of the role-play.  Please feel free to use your own.

  • If the government did not represent your interests, how would you try to change it?

  • There are many people in the U.S. who cannot vote. Who are they? Do you think they should have the right to vote?

CREDITS

Production

Jenny Lim

Mattia Romeo

Greg Trefry


Partner

Rhode Island State House, Lane Sparkman​


Testing & Evaluation

Camillia Matuk

Talia Hurwich


Sources

Marvin E. Gettleman, The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849, Random House, 1973.


Erik J. Chaput, The People's Martyr: Thomas Wilson Dorr and his 1842 Rhode Island Rebellion, University Press of Kansas, 2013.


Media

Rhode Island State House

Library of Congress

Providence College & Phillips Memorial Library

Brown University Portrait Collection

Wikimedia Commons


Special Thanks

Lane Sparkman

Thalia Wood

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