New Year’s Day isn’t just any holiday in Rhode Island. It also marks one of the most consequential turning points in the state’s political history.
It was on New Year’s Day in 1935 that Governor T.F. Green and his allies carried out what became known as Rhode Island’s “Bloodless Revolution,” a seizure of state government by the Democratic Party that remains one of the most breathtaking power grabs in American history.
“It was perhaps the most dramatic session in Rhode Island’s legislative history as Democrats yesterday overthrew what they characterized a ‘Republican feudal system,'” the Associated Press declared in newspapers nationwide the next morning. “The 50-year-old Republican domination in this state is in shambles today,” the Christian Science Monitor agreed. The New York Times labeled it “a startling coup.”
To this day the Bloodless Revolution’s legacy is contested. The late former Gov. Bruce Sundlun, a Democrat, argued it “straightened us out politically, and gave us a good cabinet-style government, which continues today.” But former Coventry Rep. Nicholas Gorham, a Republican, complained that “Rhode Island’s Animal Farm began in 1935, with the ‘Bloodless Revolution.'”
Much of what actually transpired on that Depression-era New Year’s Day isn’t contested.
Rhode Island Democrats won big in the November 1934 elections, but they still didn’t have control of the state Senate, which was apportioned to give Republican-leaning rural areas a majority. When the new session began on Jan. 1, however, Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Quinn refused to seat Republican senators elected in contested races – and lo and behold, a Democratic recount certified the Democrats the winners.
With Democrats in control of the Senate – and policemen guarding the doors of the chamber so Republican lawmakers couldn’t escape to deny Quinn a quorum – the party immediately passed laws transferring appointment power to the governor by repealing the Brayton Act, eliminating boards and offices that controlled Providence, replacing more than 80 state commissions with a small number of departments, and unseating the Republican-controlled Supreme Court.
(The ousted Supreme Court justices agreed to accept their fates – in exchange for generous pensions.)
“The coup took hardball politics to a new level,” Maureen Moakley and Elmer Cornwell wrote in their 2001 history of Rhode Island politics. Led by men like General Charles “Boss” Brayton and U.S. Senator Nelson Aldrich, the Republican Party had controlled the state for decades by means fair and foul; now in one fell swoop, GOP hegemony was over.
Republicans were outraged: Colonel Robert McCormick, the legendary arch-conservative publisher of the Chicago Tribune, ordered one of the stars removed from the American flag because he felt Rhode Island no longer deserved its place in the union.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. “In one historic day Democrats had seized the long-sought prize and with high-sounding hopes launched a new phase of Rhode Island history,” future R.I. House Speaker Matthew Smith wrote in a 1973 edition of Rhode Island History [pdf]. But, he continued:
the Democratic Party failed to capitalize on its revolution and institute the program of reform it had promoted for so long. … Instead of following up on its initial reform impulse with a program for long-promised constitutional change and badly needed social welfare legislation, newly empowered legislators matched their Republican predecessors by indulging in a wild scramble for patronage and power. …
Rhode Island’s “bloodless revolution of 1935” was a profound step toward bringing the administration of state government into line with 20th-century standards. It provided the people of the state, for the first time, an open and responsive legislature able to act on a backlog of reforms gathering since the Progressive era. Unfortunately, the initial response of the Democratic party to the challenge left something to be desired. [A] utilities reform struggle split the party and promoted a patronage grab that deterred reform spirit. Failure to call a constitutional convention tarnished the entire proceedings, and the real victims were the people of Rhode Island.
The revolution’s policy consequences are debatable; its political consequences are not.
Rhode Island Republicans made gains in the 1938 elections, a tough year nationally for Democrats, by electing Gov. William Vanderbilt and taking back control of the House and Senate. But in 1940 the Democrats prevailed again: They took back control of the House, and have never lost it in the 72 years since; Republicans will hold only 6% of House seats in the new session, a record low. In the Senate the GOP held on until 1958, when the party lost control of the chamber for good.