Robert Emmet Quinn led the political transformation of Rhode Island from Republican to Democratic ascendancy during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. Because of discriminatory flaws in Rhode Island’s constitutional system, reform in Rhode Island was an uphill battle.
Robert Quinn was born in the mill village of Phenix (then part of Warwick) on April 2, 1894, the son of Mary Ann (McCabe) Quinn and Charles, brother of the illustrious Colonel Patrick Quinn. His grandfather Peter Quinn was a stone mason whose specialty was building railroad bridges.
As a young boy, Robert attended St. James Parochial School and then the original Warwick High School. His excellent performance earned him a place at Brown University from which he graduated with honors in 1915. Robert then enrolled at Harvard law School, however, his studies were briefly interrupted by World War I. He served as a volunteer in diplomatic intelligence in both England and France, earning the rank of captain. At the war’s end, he resumed his studies at Harvard and received his law degree in 1920 at the age of twenty-four. Two years later, he was elected as state senator from West Warwick. On August 3, 1923, he married Mary Carter.
Embarking on a political career, he (along with Lieutenant Governor Felix Toupin) was instrumental in orchestrating the 1924 Democratic Filibuster to force Republicans to pass a constitutional convention bill, which had already cleared the Democratic House. In the forty-second hour of the filibuster, Republican party managers authorized some thugs imported from Boston to detonate a bromine gas bomb under Toupin’s rostrum. Within hours, most of the Republican majority was transported to Rutland, Massachusetts, where Toupin’s summons could not reach them.
After the 1924 General Assembly debacle, Bob Quinn stepped aside as West Warwick’s senator in favor of his fellow Democratic townsman Alberic Archambault and instead became Toupin’s running mate as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. Suffering defeat, he bid unsuccessfully for the state’s attorney general seat but returned to the Senate in 1928.
In 1932, Theodore Francis Green decided to run for governor again after his defeat in 1930 and chose Robert Quinn as his running mate. Both were easily elected, and Quinn, as lieutenant governor, became the presiding officer of the Senate. This duo won again in 1934.
In 1935, Quinn was the primary architect of the Bloodless Revolution, which ended Republican Party dominance in state politics and resulted in the realignment of state government agencies. During his own term as governor, he fended off an attempt by Walter O’Hara, president of the Narragansett Racetrack, to control gaming in Rhode Island. In 1937, Quinn issued a proclamation declaring Rhode Island in a state of insurrection, declaring martial law, and called out the state militia to occupy the area round the racetrack. The Race Track War and a national recession led to Quinn’s defeat in 1938 by Republican William Henry Vanderbilt.
Following his unsuccessful attempt to win his party’s endorsement for United States senator in 1946, he went on to serve as an associate justice in the Rhode Island Superior Court and, following President Truman’s appointment and the United States Senate’s confirmation on June 20, 1951, he served as chief justice of the United States Court of Military Appeals. He retired as chief justice in 1971 but continued to serve as a justice on this court until just before his death on May 19, 1975. “Fighting” Bob Quinn was buried not far from his Hall of Fame uncle Patrick in the Quinn Family Cemetery on the property of the West Warwick Country Club.
For further information, see:
Russell J. DeSimone, ed. “Fighting Bob” Quinn: Political Reformer and the People’s Advocate. The Robert E. Quinn Interviews. (Interviews conducted by Matthew J. Smith). Providence: The Rhode Island Publication Society, 2020.