When Republican Senators Fled Rhode Island

by | Jul 20, 2021

Senators leaving mid-session is nothing new. An incident last week in the Texas Senate brought to mind a similar event that occurred right here in the Biggest Little almost 100 years ago. The 1924 Rhode Island legislative session was very contentious and rightly so. It was the first session in which the Democratic Party took control from the long-ruling Republican Party. The Democrats have ruled ever since. East Greenwich’s Republican senator to that session, hardware store owner William L. Sharpe, was secreted out of state by his son Russell after he received a whispered phone call ordering him to do so. This is an excerpt from Russell T. Sharpe’s memoirs, “Some Friends and Some Relations – A Memoir of My Family,” published as a book by Alan F. Clarke. Read on.

In 1924, the start of my father’s second year as a [state] senator, the Democrats gained control of the [General] Assembly and elected a governor and lieutenant governor. The  Republicans held a slight majority in the Senate. The Democrats had all they needed to push through their platform except a majority in the Senate. So they decided to prevent any legislation from coming to a vote in the Senate until the Republicans agreed to support their bills. The Republicans were of another mind and dug in for a long fight.

At first, the lieutenant governor, a party hack named [Felix] Toupin, who presided over the Senate, refused to recognize any Republican who rose to speak. Though the Democrats could introduce bills, they couldn’t get them passed because they lacked a majority. So there was a complete deadlock.  

During each session, virtually all Republicans had to remain in their seats because if two or three of them  left, there would still be a quorum and the Democrats would have a majority. So rosters were prepared, allocating each Republican in turn a particular time to go to the bathroom or do some urgent errand. No more than one or two senators could be absent at a time. This was a little hard on some, particularly those with urinary problems. 

Things came to a head in June, 1924. The Democrats decided to wear the Republicans down by holding a filibuster. This occurred at the time of my high school graduation which my father could not attend because he was virtually a prisoner in the Senate chambers. The Democrats took the floor one by one and talked, and talked, and talked. One senator read the entire New Testament. After three days and nights, someone set off a chemical, or smoke, bomb in the front of the Senate chamber. By chance, the lieutenant governor was being shaved and had his face covered with hot towels, so he got none of the smoke or vapor. My father’s desk was in the front row. The bomb went off in front of him. He was knocked out and taken to the hospital. The session, of course, came to an end and the senators went to their homes.  

Father was brought home the next day. We never found out what the bomb was made of but we always believed that it contained some kind of injurious substance because my father’s health was never good after that.  

About seven o’clock in the evening of the day father came home, the phone rang. I answered it. A voice asked me who I was and I answered. The voice then said: “Call me back at this number.” I did and received the following instructions. “Take Senator Sharpe out of the state and over the nearest state border at once. Go to a certain hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts, and leave him there. Do not tell anyone but your mother what you are doing. If you are intercepted within the borders of Rhode Island, he will be arrested and brought back to the Senate.” Feeling like a character in “A Tale of Two Cities,” I followed instructions and we set off at ten o’clock on a dark, June night and wound our way by back roads across the state into Connecticut. I expected to meet armed patrols on the way or be challenged by a border guard. But we met no one who was interested in us. A few hours later, we arrived in Worcester to find a bevy of other Republican senators. I bade father good night and drove home.  

The next day, we learned that all the Republican senators had gotten safely out of the state. They could not be extradited without the consent of the State of Massachusetts and Massachusetts had a Republican administration in its state house. Without the Republicans, the Democrats did not have a quorum and so no state business could be transacted and no bills passed, including appropriation bills. There was no pay for state employees. It was checkmate.  

The Senators moved to a hotel in the hills at Rutland, Mass., west of Worcester. There they stayed for the remaining six months of the year until their terms expired. They all ran for re-election in absentia and all were reelected. Moreover, the Republicans swept all the state offices and achieved a majority in the Assembly and the Senate. On New Year’s Day, Father came home, was sworn in and, at the end of his second term, joyfully got out of politics.  

I went to Rutland as often as I could from Cambridge where I had started my freshman year at Harvard. On my visits, I had a chance to see politics in action. I realized that it was a game of compromise, of power plays, of trades. But I gained respect for many of  the senators. Some were really brilliant men. There is a little reminder of one of them named Robinson in the form of a well-written verse kidding Father for introducing a bill setting the minimum size of little-neck clams which could be harvested. 

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July 21, 2021 10:19 am

Great tale, Prof. Clarke!


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