The 1663 colonial charter, which was granted by King Charles II of England, served as the primary instrument of government in Rhode Island until it was replaced by a new constitution in 1843. In the 17th and 18th century, the charter was considered a liberal document, allowing for religious freedom and the election of its officials by the freemen of the colony. The charter, however, had no provision for amendment and by the 19th century its fixed system of apportionment was no longer responsive to the needs of the state.
From the 1790s to 1830s, there were numerous failed attempts to replace the charter with a modern constitution. Early in 1841, the Rhode Island Suffrage Association petitioned the General Assembly for “the abrogation of the Charter, …and …the establishment of a constitution which should more efficiently define the authority of the Executive and Legislative branches, and more strongly recognize the rights of the citizens.” When their petition was tabled by the General Assembly the association resorted to extralegal means. In July, the Suffrage Association called a constitutional convention to convene in Providence. By the end of November, the delegates had framed a new constitution for the state that greatly fixed the malapportionment in the legislature and greatly expanded the suffrage for white males. The so-called People’s Constitution was approved by the people in a one-sided vote of 13,947 for and 52 opposed in late December 1841.
The Rhode Island Legislature, feeling pressure to respond, called for its own constitutional convention and by March 1842 this constitution was placed before the people; in an election lasting three days it was narrowly defeated by a vote of 8,013 for and 8,689 opposed. This constitution is referred to as the Landholder’s Constitution.
In January 1842, the General Assembly, responding to the mounting political pressure, decided to call its own constitutional convention. By March 1842, another constitution was placed before the citizens of Rhode Island. It was narrowly defeated by a vote of 8,013 for and 8,689 opposed. This constitution is referred to as the Landholder’s Constitution.
During the height of the turmoil of the Dorr Rebellion in the spring of 1842, the legislature called for another constitutional convention. The convention met in September of 1842 and by November a new constitution was placed before the people. It was approved by a vote of 7,024 for and 51 opposed; it went into effect in April 1843. This constitution is commonly called the Law & Order Constitution and it remained the primary instrument of Rhode Island government until the late 20th century. A careful comparison of the People’s and Law & Order Constitutions will point out many other differences.
For an article-by-article comparison chart, please click the following link.