During the first half of the century, a number of colorful politicians from Warwick played a key role in the state’s politics. John Brown Francis, William Sprague and William and Christopher Rhodes were among the most influential.
John Brown Francis dominated Warwick’s political scene for a great many years. From the time he inherited the property form his mother, Abby (Brown) Francis, until his death, Francis made Spring Greene in Warwick his home (1821-1864) and devoted his many talents to farming and Warwick politics.
He served Warwick on local, state and national levels from 1821-1856. He was governor from 1833-38. In that year he was defeated in a bid for re-election by William Sprague who, like Francis, had been a Democrat and an anti-Mason. In 1838 Sprague ran on the Whig Party ticket. The change came about primarily as Sprague, a very wealthy manufacturer, believed the Whigs were much more in favor of “high protective tariffs” than the Democrats were. It was a very close election. Francis, who was defeated, polled 3,504 to Sprague’s 3,984.
In the years following, Rhode Island was severely divided over the issue of political reform. In spite of the democratic trends started by Jackson, Rhode Island still adhered to its old voting procedures. In 1840 it was the only state that limited voting by property qualifications. Because the Charter of 1663 fixed representation, small towns controlled the General Assembly and the state. The movement for reform was led by Thomas Wilson Dorr, who bolted from the Whig Party and became a Democrat
In 1840 Dorr and his supporters formed the R.I. Suffrage Association and forced the legislature to call a Constitutional Convention. When the legislature ruled that only qualified property holders could elect delegates to the convention, the reformers demanded “popular sovereignty” and called for their own convention, allowing all adult white male citizens the right to vote for delegates. As a result, two constitutions came into existence, a “Landholders’ Constitution” and a “People’s Constitution.” The People’s Constitution was determined invalid by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
The Dorrites refused to accept this and called for an election, choosing Thomas Dorr as governor. The Landholders held an election shortly after and they selected Samuel Ward King as governor. King ordered the arrest of Dorr, who fled to Washington, D.C. to seek intervention from President John Tyler.
John Brown Francis gave his full support to King and the Landholders. To counteract Dorr, Governor King sent Elisha R. Potter, Francis and John Whipple, “three of our most distinguished citizens,” to ask Tyler to intervene against Dorr. Francis and his colleagues were successful in keeping President Tyler from supporting Dorr and in assuring federal support to King in the event of a rebellion.
Dorr, disillusioned by President Tyler’s actions, returned to Rhode Island and set up a command post on Federal Hill. On May 18, 1842, about 230 Dorr supporters unsuccessfully attempted to storm the Cranston Street Armory and seize the weapons there to overthrow the Charter government by force. All of Dorr’s attempts were unsuccessful, and in 1843 Dorr surrendered to the authorities and was imprisoned. Francis’ support of the Law and Order Party during the Dorr Rebellion helped to minimize the divisions in Warwick that occurred during that period.