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Sunday, February 26, 2012

If only we could turn back the clock

Yearning for Ye Olde Charlestowne
In 1841, to demand universal suffrage was an act of
insurrection in Rhode Island where only property owners could vote
By Will Collette

There was a letter to the editor in the February 25, 2012, Westerly Sun by Jon and Joan Scolpino of Bethel, CT, who own a Charlestown home and pay taxes of $2,991. They felt an earlier letter by Henry Walsh was unfair for saying Charlestown’s non-residents don't pay enough in taxes.

The Scolpinos not only rejected the idea that non-residents don’t contribute their fair share, but also offered to do more – if only they were given the right, as non-resident property owners, to vote.

Thomas Dorr
I’ve written about non-resident voting before – it’s illegal in Rhode Island, where property-based franchise ended after the 1843 Dorr Rebellion. It’s even illegal in Connecticut, where the Scolpinos and many other Charlestown non-resident voter wannabes come from.

But it’s clear our non-resident neighbors will keep at it until they wear us down. If they should ever succeed in getting the vote based on property ownership, I think it should be in proportion to how much they own. That way, it's crystal clear where power comes from.

After all, if property confers rights, why shouldn’t those rights increase the more you own? Let’s say you get one vote for every $250,000 in Charlestown land you own. Under this new system, the Scolpinos would get one vote between them.

Sorry, Joanne.
No vote for you.
The mayor of the village of Greater Sonquipaugia, Joanne D’Alcomo, is unfortunately SOL, because her property is only assessed at $249,800. Sorry, Joanne, you just missed. She, like more than 900 owners of property assessed at less than $250,000 – as well as renters and non-owners – just aren’t worthy of the vote.

But others are.

CCA officer Leo Mainelli would get five votes on his $1.3 million home.

Town Council President Tom Gentz and wife Mary Lou would get four votes on their properties worth $1,239,200 – missing getting a fifth vote by $10,800.

Tom Gentz: You get four votes
Joseph and Barbara Walsh of Greenwich, the owners of Charlestown’s highest valued house at $6,018,000, would get 24 votes, as only they should, given their wealth.

Developer Larry LeBlanc would get at least 16 votes, just based on the properties he owns in his own name and not counting several million dollars' more owned by his various companies. All told, LeBlanc could end up being Charlestown’s most prolific voter.

Since the US Supreme Court has determined that corporations are people, I think we will be compelled to give the Charlestown Land Trust the 12 votes it is due on the Charlestown property it currently owns, and then another four votes when it completes the Y-Camp caper and assumes title to Sonquipaugia.

Yes, if only we could roll back the clock back to the early 1800s, before the Dorr Rebellion, back to the days when wealth carried with it even more privileges than it does today.

Back in the early 1800s, life in Charlestown was a lot simpler. The ruling families really did rule over the largely agrarian population of about 1454 people (1800 census). Among the early ruling families were: Cross, Crandall, Hoxie, Stanton, Kenyon, Wilcox, Pendleton, Champlin and others.

Many of Charlestown’s farms and fields, scattered just to the north and south of Route One, were worked by slaves and indentured servants. Many were Narragansetts. Though in the early 1800s, slavery still lived on in the South, the practice was supposedly ended in 1774 in Rhode Island by state law. How long the practice of involuntary servitude continued in Charlestown is not a matter of public record.

Clark's Mill in Shannock (Driftways)
The skies were dark because there weren’t any lights to worry about. No asphalt either. All surfaces, except the exposed glacier rock, were permeable.

Life expectancy was about 38 years old. Though there were a lot more children, the cost to educate them was negligible – indeed, pretty much non-existent among the children near the new mills in Carolina, Kenyon and Shannock. Their little hands were needed at home to pluck through the raw wool and cotton fibers.

There were no labor unions in southern Rhode Island, even though the first textile worker strike in the US took place in 1824 at Slater Mill in Pawtucket. You could still be jailed for even suggesting a union.

The Great Swamp Massacre
The Narragansetts were not about to build a casino, or much of anything for that matter, since at this time, the white residents considered them dead and gone in the aftermath of the Great Swamp Massacre in 1675, except of course, those who were taken into slavery.

All in all, Charlestown was a veritable paradise for wealthy land-owners, especially after they built the mills in Carolina, Kenyon and Shannock, and imported the laborers to live in North of One mill housing while working 14 hours a day in the mills.

Sources:,; The Historical Story of Charlestown, RI 1669-1976, Frances Wharton Mandeville, Charlestown Historical Society, 1979; Reflections of Charlestown 1876-1976, Charlestown Bicentennial Book Committee, 1979. Highly recommended and available on order from the Charlestown Historical Society. The Narragansett Tribe’s website (click here). 

Charlestown’s founding Fathers were conscious of their place in history, and the need to preserve what they had. For that reason, they founded Ye Olde Charlestowne Citizens Guild (CCG) in 1814 to run the town. They began laying the groundwork for maintaining their control until the end of time when they enacted an ordinance creating the Commission to Make a Plan so Nothing Changes in the Future and named Phineas Rutherford Platner as its first head.

Times have changed. We ended slavery and now have to put up with uppity Narragansetts who think they can do what they want with their land. We installed electricity, laid down asphalt, and switched from farming to tourism as the town’s main industry. We tolerate, barely, some unions.

We live longer and now send children to schools. The CCG is now the CCA, and we now have the Planning Commission as our ultimate protector of our olde agrarian-age lifestyle.

And along the line, we decided that we do not base citizenship rights on the ownership of property. Call that “communist” or “North Korean” if you will, but you do not get to vote just because you own land here.