Governor Robert Emmet Quinn

Inducted: 1966
Born: 1894
Died: 1975

Robert E. Quinn was born on April. 2, 1894, in Phoenix, Rhode Island, son of Charles Quinn and Mary Ann (McCabe) Quinn. Named for the noble Irish patriot, Robert Quinn led the political transformation of Rhode Island from Republican to Democratic during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. As a young boy, Quinn went to St. James Parochial School in the village of Arctic and then to the original Warwick High School. He was a brilliant student and was able to attend Brown University, graduating in 1915. He received his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1918. Quinn served in the United States Foreign Service during World War I as a U.S. Diplomatic Intelligence Service member in England and France. After the war ended, he returned to Rhode Island and practiced law with his uncle, Patrick Henry Quinn. In 1923, Quinn married Mary Carter. They had five children including Norma Marie, Robert Carter, Pauline, Cameron Peter, and Penelope Dorr.  

The Rhode Island economy had changed in the years after the war’s end. The state’s burgeoning population suffered a steep decline in the dominant textile industry while other areas of the country prospered. This decline was followed by the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s. Such demographic and economic shifts had profound political consequences. A dominant and conservative Republican Party, ascendant since the Civil War, controlled state government until the early 1920s. Providence business interests and rural politicians hailing from South County and the western farming towns along the Connecticut border led the GOP. It also had the allegiance of two large ethnocultural groups—the Franco-Americans and the Italians—which regarded the Republicans as the party of industry, jobs, and what the GOP called “the full dinner pail.” Irish American antagonism and resentment towards these newer arrivals also kept them from embracing the Irish-led Democratic Party, even though the Irish, French, and Italians shared a common religion. However, even within Catholicism there was friction. 

Against this demographic, economic, cultural, and political backdrop, Robert Quinn, also referred to as “Fighting Bob,” played his leading role from the June 1924 legislative filibuster to his departure from the office of governor in January 1939. He began his political career as a Democrat in the Rhode Island Senate in 1923, one of a trio of young progressive politicians which included Governor William S. Flynn and Lt. Governor Felix A. Toupin. Their reform agenda included a 48-hour work week and an end to property qualifications for voting in city council elections. The Republican-controlled state senate blocked these reforms, and the 1923 and 1924 sessions were primarily spent in deadlock. Finally, in June 1924, Quinn and Lt. Governor Toupin devised a desperate plan: to stage a marathon multi-day filibuster. Toupin read from “Hamlet” and the Encyclopedia Britannica in hopes that enough exhausted Republicans would leave the chamber, giving Democrats the majority they needed to pass the measure. By June 19, Republicans had had enough, and sent a Boston gangster to set off a bromine gas bomb in the Senate chamber. Quinn and Toupin were unhurt, but the entire Republican delegation fled the chamber. The Senate was then unable to form a quorum to get anything done. The Providence Journal blamed the gas attack on the Democrats, who lost widely in November 1924. 

As the president of the Rhode Island Senate, Quinn was a key actor during the “Bloodless Revolution” on January 1, 1935. It was not a spontaneous uprising but a well-planned coup. A dozen Democratic leaders orchestrated the events with Quinn the conductor. In late November and early December 1934, the votes for the 42 Senate seats were tallied, and the preliminary count gave the Republicans a 23 to 19 edge. However, the Democrats alleged voter irregularities in three towns ostensibly carried by the GOP—Coventry, Portsmouth, and South Kingstown. Upon investigation, the deception in Coventry was so blatant that the Republican-dominated State Returning Board reversed the result, leaving the “final” count at 22 to 20 in favor of the Republicans.

However, Quinn was convinced of fraud in both Portsmouth and South Kingstown. As the incumbent presiding officer of the Senate by virtue of his 1932 victory, he invoked a constitutional power under Article IV, Section 6 to have the Senate conduct a recount in the two disputed districts. When the Senate opened on New Year’s Day 1935, Quinn swore in all senators-elect except for Republicans B. Earle Anthony of Portsmouth and incumbent Wallace Campbell of South Kingstown. This duo sat in their assigned seats, but Quinn ignored them. This procedure left the Senate divided 20 to 20 with Quinn presiding. Several Republicans tried to leave the chambers to prevent a quorum, but Quinn had prepared warrants for their detention and the state police complied. With the Republicans restrained, Secretary of State Louis Cappelli supervised a recount. That tally overturned the election results in both towns and gave victory to Portsmouth Democrat Joseph P. Dunn and South Kingstown Democrat Charles A. White, Sr. The new line-up was now 22 to 20 in favor of the Democrats, thanks not only to Quinn’s maneuvers, but also to the 1928 constitutional amendment allowing Providence four Senate seats. 

In 1936, Quin was elected governor, outpolling former Republican attorney general Charles P. Sisson 160,776 to 137,369. Soon after his inauguration, Governor Quinn entered a bitter feud with Narragansett racetrack mogul Walter O’Hara and his ally Mayor Tom McCoy in a confrontation reporter Westbrook Pegler and Life Magazine described for a national audience on November 8, 1937, as “The War of the Wild Irish Roses.” Narragansett Park, a premier thoroughbred racing venue, opened in August 1934. It was a local anecdote to the Great Depression. Judge James Dooley, its principal founder, retained O’Hara’s services as Narragansett’s front man, publicist, and promoter. O’Hara was able to attract many legendary horses to the track. On June 22, 1935, less than a year after its promising opening, the great Seabiscuit won his first race there. In the Fall of 1937, Narragansett Park became the focal point of the bitter Democratic Party factionalism that had vexed state politics since the Bloodless Revolution of 1935. Narragansett Racetrack impresario O’Hara had made considerable donations to both major political organizations and employed numerous state legislators and party regulars in lucrative part-time posts at the track. He repeatedly lobbied for more racing dates and sought to limit the state’s take of the betting handle. Intensely partisan but highly principled, Quinn resented what he viewed as O’Hara’s baneful influence on state government. The smoldering resentments ignited on September 2, 1937, when O’Hara’s guards beat and forcibly ejected Providence Journal reporter John Aborn from the track. Quinn ordered his supporters on the State Racing Commission to investigate O’Hara’s long train of abuses and to rescind his right to operate Narragansett Park. Quinn directed the commission to cancel the track’s fall racing dates, but the high court blocked the move. Meanwhile, O’Hara let loose a barrage of libelous charges against the governor, including a headline implying that Quinn had “landed in Butler’s,” a private mental hospital in Providence.

“Fighting Bob” Quinn recklessly refused to be deterred. On October 16, 1937, one day after the second Supreme Court ruling and two days before the park was scheduled to open, he issued a proclamation declaring that the track and its environs were in a state of insurrection, justifying martial law. Three hundred national guardsmen armed with machine guns, joined with state police to cancel the Fall meet. Reporter John Kieran of the New York Times observed, “In O’Hara’s case, they have sent more armed troops after one little man than against any other individual since Mexican rebel Pancho Villa was in his prime.”

During the Racetrack War, military force had been augmented by a contentious and embarrassing legal battle where each side hurled charges like mortar shells. On September 9, immediately after O’Hara published his inflammatory and deceptive Butler headline, Quinn leveled the dubious charge of criminal libel against him. On October 20, Quinn delivered a radio address to the people of Rhode Island justifying his use of military force at the track and condemning the “corruption” he had uncovered in the track’s activities, especially Narragansett Racing Association’s lavish and illegal contributions to various politicians, most of them Democrats, to gain favorable terms for the park’s operation. Suddenly, on April Fool’s Day, 1938, O’Hara made an amazing apology to Quinn. O’Hara admitted that in “my newspaper” and “over the radio,” he had made untrue statements “to serve my own purpose” and “publicly avowed” that he had never paid any money to Governor Quinn in any capacity.

After this profound mea culpa, the “war” dragged slowly to a conclusion. The national embarrassment to Rhode Island caused by the “Racetrack War” contributed to Quinn’s defeat in the 1938 election by William Vanderbilt, a contest in which he ran ten thousand votes behind the remainder of the Democratic ticket. On February 28, 1941, O’Hara died on Route 44 in Taunton, Massachusetts because of a spectacular head-on auto crash that abruptly ended his turbulent career.

Governor J. Howard McGrath appointed Quinn a justice of the Superior Court in 1941. After several months on the bench, Quinn took a patriotic leave of absence (as he did in World War I) to serve in the Navy’s legal branch. During his four-year tenure, he rose to the rank of captain. Much of his service was in the Pacific theater where his specialty was developing an expedited method of processing court-martial trials. The Navy and the Army cited him for distinguished service as a veteran of both World Wars.

Upon his return to Rhode Island in 1945, Quinn gave some thought to a run for U.S. Senate, but his base had evaporated. He returned reluctantly to the Superior Court bench. However, his wartime experience brought him a venue change. In 1951, Congress approved a new three-member U.S. Court of Military Appeals to which Quinn was nominated with the recommendation of U.S. Attorney J. Howard McGrath. The Senate confirmed Quinn as its first chief judge. 

During his political career, Quinn urged a constitutional convention calling for home rule for cities and towns, independence of the judiciary from the legislature, a government of separated powers with three distinct branches, a ban on dual officeholding, budgetary power for the governor together with a line-item veto, simplification of the amendment procedure, popular initiative and referendum, and a property tax exemption for homeowners. Quinn’s recommended reforms were broad, indicating his deep dissatisfaction with the current constitutional system. His sweeping proposals sought to change Rhode Island’s constitutional order. Like reformers Thomas Wilson Dorr, Charles E. Gorman, and Amasa Eaton, he failed, but his position, like theirs, has eventually prevailed. In 1951, the Home Rule Amendment was added to the state constitution; in the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court, in three major decisions, mandated the states to reapportion according to the “one man, one vote” principle, thus ending rural control of the Senate. The 1986 Constitutional Convention made the governor’s budgetary power constitutional giving permanence to the 1935 statute enacted by the “revolutionaries.” In 1994, an amendment took the election of Supreme Court justices from the General Assembly’s Grand Committee and placed it in the hands of the governor, acting in response to the recommendations of a Judicial Nominating Commission. It also gave those justices life tenure. Finally, in 2004, after a long battle by reformers, the voters approved amendments firmly establishing the principle of separation of powers that not only vacated the legislature’s role on all state boards and commissions, but also repealed the legislature’s residual powers clause.

Topping Quinn’s list of legislative reforms was a personal income tax that he called “the fairest form of taxation that could be devised” and a primary election law to blunt the influence of party bosses in selecting nominees for political office. Neither had a chance of passage during Quinn’s brief and turbulent incumbency, but, here again, he was eventually vindicated. In 1947, Rhode Island legislators enacted a comprehensive direct primary system. In 1971, Governor Frank Licht, at great expense to his popularity and political future, sponsored the enactment of a state income tax.

At Quinn’s death on May 19, 1975, he was survived by his wife, Mary; two sons, Robert L. Quinn and Cameron P. “Ronnie” Quinn, a state amateur golfing champion based at West Warwick Country Club; three daughters, Norma, Penelope, and Pauline; a sister, Dr. Maisie E. Quinn, who was a legendary Kent County educator; and twenty grandchildren.

“Fighting” Bob Quinn, was buried not far from his uncle, Patrick Henry Quinn, in the Quinn Family Cemetery on the property of the West Warwick Country Club. Finally, both dynamic, battling Irishmen are resting in peace.

Robert E. Quinn was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1966.

For additional reading:

  • Historical Cruise of the Ocean State, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, Rhode Island Publications Society.
  • “Fighting”Bob Quinn: Political Reformer and People’s Advocate, Rhode Island Publications Society, Russell J. DeSimone, editor.
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