Allen, Philip, 1785-1865
Senator Philip Allen (1785-1865) of Providence was a merchant, a textile magnate, a reform governor (1851-53), and a one-term United States Senator (1853-1859). The brother of Zachariah Allen, noted inventor and industrialist, and the uncle of Thomas Wilson Dorr, Allen was also prominent in banking and insurance.
A graduate of Brown University (Class of 1803), Philip Allen was Rhode Island’s most prominent political figure of the early 1850s. He was chosen governor as a Democrat in the April elections of 1851, 1852, and 1853. During his tenure he supported notable reforms including abolition of the death penalty, institution of the secret ballot, and removal of the real estate requirement for voting that had been imposed upon naturalized citizens by the state Constitution of 1843. The ban on capital punishment was enacted; so was a secret ballot law, but that reform was repealed shortly after Allen left office, as his Democratic party descended into long-term minority status.
Philip Allen had a tense and tenuous relationship with his famous nephew, Thomas Wilson Dorr. He vigorously opposed Dorr’s resort to force in 1842 during the Dorr Rebellion, but achieved a degree of reconciliation with him by the early 1850s, when Allen became the titular leader of the reform-oriented urban wing of the Democratic party.
In July, 1853, Allen resigned the governorship, only two-and-a-half months into his third one-year term, when Democratic control of both houses of the General Assembly (the last such occurrence until January, 1935) enabled him to succeed Whig John H. Clarke as United States Senator. He generally supported the policies of Presidents Pierce and Buchanan. Ironically, this prominent industrialist from the most urbanized state chaired the Committee on Agriculture in the Thirty-third and Thirty-fourth Congresses.
As a mill owner, Allen was paternalistic towards his workers. He employed a large number of Irish immigrants at his Providence calico cloth mill and ingratiated himself with them by donating the original bells for the city’s first two Catholic churches–Sts. Peter and Paul (1838) and St. Patrick’s (1842).
Allen retired from active business and political pursuits in 1859 and died in Providence on December 16, 1865 at the age of eighty. He was survived by his wife Phoebe Aborn with whom he had eleven children.