Charles E. Gorman

Inducted: 2005
Born: 1844
Died: 1917

Gorman, Charles Edmund, 1844-1917

Charles E. Gorman was Rhode Island’s foremost constitutional reformer of the late 19th century. He was born in Boston in 1844 to an Irish immigrant father for whom he was named and a Yankee mother, Sarah Woodbury, who traced her Massachusetts ancestry to the Cape Ann colony of the early 1620s.

Gorman was three years old when his parents came to Providence. Despite a maternal lineage that later gave him the right of membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, his circumstances were such that he left school at age eleven to become a newsboy. Being of keen intellect, he fulfilled his ambition to study law and even secured a clerkship with former Chief Justice Richard W. Greene.

Gorman earned admission to the Rhode Island bar on December 12, 1865 at the age of twenty-one, thus becoming the first Irish Catholic lawyer to achieve that status. From that time onward, Gorman became the Irish Catholic pathbreaker–first state legislator (1870), first Providence city councilman (1875), first speaker of the House of Representatives (1887), and first U.S. district attorney (1893).

Throughout his legal career Charles Gorman led the movement for constitutional change based upon the principle of equal rights. He was instrumental in the legislative passage of the Bourn Amendment, despite the fact that it would work to the immediate political detriment of the Democratic party, and he served on the three blue-ribbon commissions (1898, 1899 and 1912) which crafted reform constitutions that failed of adoption. In 1896, the legal lion whose formal education stopped at age eleven received an honorary Doctor of Laws from Georgetown University and in 1905 he was one of the principal draftsmen of the Court and Practice Act of 1905 which established the present Superior Court System and made the Supreme Court a predominantly appellate tribunal.

Gorman’s most important legal foray was the publication of a learned treatise entitled An Historical Statement of the Elective Franchise in Rhode Island (1879), a work that he effectively presented to the Congress of the United States to demonstrate that the prevailing Rhode Island suffrage system was at variance with the newly enacted Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His invocation of that amendment foreshadowed twentieth-century U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the provision as it relates to state suffrage laws.

In 1874, Gorman married Josephine Dietrich, with whom he had five children. Sadly, only one survived when Gorman died at his Providence home on February 16, 1917 at the age of seventy-two.

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