The Political History

A most significant contribution to U. S. constitutional history was made by Connecticut in the years 1639-1789. What is now Connecticut was organized into two distinct colonies from 1634-1662, and neither colony had a charter from Great Britain. As people settled these two colonies, they saw the need to establish a civil body politics. The River Colony, consisting of Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford, adopted the Fundamental Orders, while the New Haven colony, including New Haven, Branford, Milford, Stamford, and Southhold, Long Island, drew up a set of Fundamental Laws.

It was September of 1633 when the Reverend Mr. Thomas Hooker arrived in the colony of Massachusetts. He belonged to the Puritan faction of the Anglican Church. His reputation as a preacher must have preceded him to the New World, for he had a ready-made congregation waiting for him in Newtown, Massachusetts, and was immediately installed as the pastor. By 1634, Hooker's congregation had petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for more land or for permission to emigrate. Three reasons are given for requesting this petition:
1) inadequate land for cattle, maintenance of ministers, and new settlers;
2) abundant fertile land in Connecticut and Dutch designs on the same;
3) "the strong bent of their spirit to move thither." However, some historians claim that the real reason for the petition may have been Hooker's rising conflict with John Cotton, who seems to have pre-empted the role of Massachusetts' chief clergyman.

At about this same time, 1633, the Holmes party, a part of the Plymouth Colony, set up a fort north of Hartford, in what is now present day Windsor. Also, Jacob Van Curler, a Dutch explorer and trader bought land from the Pequot Indians, and set up a post in what is now Hartford. Simultaneously, John Oldham, leader of a group of families from Watertown, Massachusetts settled in what is now Wethersfield. Saybrook, a fort at the mouth of the Connecticut River, was established by John Winthrop, Jr., son of the Governor of Massachusetts, in 1635. This fort served as a defense post, with Winthrop as Governor.

Whatever the real reason for his leaving, in October of 1635, we find Thomas Hooker with sixty men, women and children settled in a place along the Connecticut River known as Suckiaug. During the spring and summer of 1636, more people left the Massachusetts Hay Colony and settled along the Connecticut River forming the three towns of Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield. Also, Hooker, as part of an understanding with Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, and Governor John Winthrop, Jr. of Saybrook, received legal clearance from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to settle.

Both Hooker and Winthrop, Jr., approached the Massachusetts General Court in 1636, for a specific enactment. There followed the issuance of a commission authorizing eight men to govern, establish courts, wage war, and convene the inhabitants into a General Court such as at Massachusetts. Although the rule that forbade an incorporated entity like Massachusetts from issuing charters left the new settlement under a legal cloud, the Connecticut settlers knew that they had the strongest sanction they were likely to get. Earlier in 1633, delegates from the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, the River, and New Haven colonies adopted articles creating the New England Confederation. It provided for both a defensive and offensive alliance aimed at preserving the safety and liberty of the member colonies.

About the same time, 1636-1638, we find the Rev. Mr. John Davenport and Mr. Theophilus Eaton, together with a group of settlers having left England to establish a new colony. Some members of the group stopped briefly in Massachusetts then proceeded south and purchased a tract of land from the Momauguin Indians. This parcel of land stretched from the present day Guilford, west along the shore to Stratford and north to what is present day Wallingford.

Soon after the River Colony obtained its shaky legal status, trouble began. The beginning of the Pequot War goes back to conflict between the Pequots and the Dutch prior to 1635. This problem had been resolved and the Pequots remained friendly with the white settlers. In 1636, John Oldham was killed by the Block Island Indians, who had been given refuge by the Pequots. On May 1, 1637, the General Court was convened in Hartford and war was declared against the Pequots. A ninety man militia was summoned, forty-two from Hartford, thirty from Windsor and eighteen from Wethersfield, with John Mason as their Commander, Mason received help from Uncas, a dissident Pequot Sachem, who had hoped to regain control of them. The militia asked Rev. Stone, chaplain, to pray for Divine guidance. The Mason group then joined forces with Miantonomo, chief of the Narragansett Indians against the Pequots. Mason's group interpreted their victory over the Pequots as a sign of God's will. This war brought the three towns together in an effort of common defense. This, in turn led the towns to see the need for a common governmental structure.

The colonists' idea of Constitutionalism included the notion of the social contract, certain inalienable natural rights, and government by the consent of the governed. The Fundamental Orders, adopted in January 1639, by the River Towns, were based upon this idea.. They were most probably written by Roger Ludlow, the only lawyer living in Connecticut. They appear to have established a political entity based upon a divine covenant. The Fundamental Orders provided for:

1) the convening of a General Court in April and September. The April session was to elect the Governor and six magistrates. The September session to ratify laws.
2) no person could succeed himself as Governor.
3) Governor had to belong to an approved Congregation and had to have experience as a magistrate.
4) Each of the three River towns was to elect four deputies; with future towns to be entitled to whatever number the court thought fit.
5) there were no religious requirements established for voting.
6) the supremacy of the General Court over the individual towns was clearly enunciated.
7) the court could be dissolved only at its own behest.
8) the Governor and magistrates composed a court of justice.
9) freemen could convene a meeting of the General Court on their own initiative if the Governor and magistrates failed to do so at the prescribed times.

Some powers of the General Court were:
1) to make and repeal laws.
2) to levy taxes.
3) admit freemen.
4) grant undisposed lands to towns orpersons.
5) call in to question any individual for misdemeanors.
6) deal with any other matter that concerned the good of this commonwealth.

The Fundamental Orders constitute only a brief outline of government. They fail to provide for a division of executive, legislative, judicial and administrative authority, separation of powers not then forming part of any political theory!

Comparing the Fundamental Laws adopted by the New Haven Colony with the Fundamental Orders, the Fundamental Laws provided:
1) that the direction of the government should follow the perfect rule found in scripture.
2) that the freemen assembled would:

a) choose public officials.
b) make or repeal laws.
c) divide land and inheritance.
d) do and follow other things contained in the scriptures.
3) that freemen be bound in business as they are in scriptures.
4) that the freeman freely come together to secure purity and peace of laws and God.
5) that the magistrates be chosen from among the Church members.

The civil government of New Haven was bound in Scripture and under the influence of the local Pastor, Rev. John Davenport. The Fundamental Laws were a body politics among God fearing Church members. Church members were few because to be admitted to the Church one had to have had a godly experience which had to becertified by the elders.

By the early 1640's, both colonies had a written document that established some form of a civil government. The Fundamental Orders are referred to as the World's first written Constitution.

The year 1639 found George Fenwick in charge of the Saybrook colony. Between 1639 and 1644, he met with Roger Ludlow, Thomas Hooker, and Thomas Wells concerning a proposed incorporation of Saybrook and the River Colony. In April 1644, Fenwick was elected Connecticut magistrate from Saybrook, as Saybrook was united with the River Colony.

By 1660, Governor Winthrop and the River Colony saw the need for a Royal Charter. Because of boundary questions and other uncertainties, there appeared a growing need for legal status for the colony. Governor Leete of the New Haven Colony met with Governor Winthrop. Leete wanted to establish some sort of federal union with Winthrop without losing a separate existence for the New Haven colony. Nothing came of this meeting. Winthrop was asked to journey to England to seek a Royal Charter for the Colony. In June or 1661, Davenport wrote to Winthrop asking him to delay his journey to England for one year. Winthrop, in turn, left Hartford without answering Davenport. Winthrop presented his first petition to the Court of Charles II in September of 1661, with the final approval not attained until May, 1662.

The Royal Charter of 1662 , was most generous. It gave Connecticut not only a free and clear legal title, but an amazing amount of self-government. The Charter allowed freemen to incorporate into towns. It called for a governor, deputy governor, and twelve assistants to be annually elected, this upper house to meet twice yearly. It allowed for a lower house of two members per town to conduct colonial business as a General Court. It granted freemen all the liberties and immunities of natural born English men, but they must take an oath of crown supremacy. It established a court with full judicial powers, allowed the legislature to enact laws, and granted the freest type of land tenure. In return, the Crown was to receive one-fifth of all the gold and silver mined in Connecticut. As it turned out, there was neither gold nor silver in Connecticut.

This Charter also established the following boundaries: Narragansett Bay on the East, Massachusetts on the North, Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean on the South, and the Pacific Ocean on the West. The major problem introduced by the new Charter was the inclusion of the entire colony of New Haven with Connecticut. Connecticut colony attempted to negotiate with the New Haven colony concerning its inclusion into Connecticut. Finally, in 1664, Guilford, Branford, Milford, Stamford and Southhold, voted to join Connecticut. New Haven stood alone. Conditions were now disintegrating in New Haven, especially after the Dutch surrender of New Amsterdam to the English. Faced with the choice of rule by either Governor Winthrop of Connecticut or James Stuart, the Duke of York, New Haven submitted to Connecticut on January 5, 1665. The Connecticut Colony was now finally unified.

Although in obtaining the Royal Charter of 1662, Winthrop attempted to establish fixed boundaries for Connecticut, this did not happen.

In June of 1686, King James II gave Governor Andros of New York a commission over the new Dominion of New England. Governor Andros was supposed to collect the Royal Charters of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. In October of 1687, Governor Andros confronted Governor Treat of Connecticut and demanded the Charter. Governor Treat graciously welcomed Andros. Debate over the Charter continued all day. Suddenly, at nightfall, the candles went out. The Charter had disappeared from the table, supposedly spirited away and hidden in the hollow of a giant oak tree by a Captain Wadsworth of Hartford. Andros never did receive the Connecticut Charter. With the downfall of King James II in the Glorious Revolution, 1688-1689, so too went the ways of Governor Andros. On May 9, 1689, the Connecticut General Court reestablished the government under the Charter of 1662, and Governor Treat assumed his rightful place.

The period from 1690 through 1763 was marked by a succession of wars, several of which included the security of the colonies from the French and the Indians. From 1763 through the American Revolution, England passed laws antagonistic to the colonies. In particular, laws such as the Navigation Acts, Sugar, Stamp and Townshend Acts were aimed at raising revenue to help defray cost of England's wars. The Writs of Assistance and Quartering Acts seemed to be aimed at preventing colonial sedition. The colonists came into direct conflict with England by violating British laws, protesting, boycotting, and in general just defiance of all British laws. The colonists even organized the Stamp Act Congress to formulate a unified plan of action. Connecticut, being a more commercial state, involved in shipping, felt the effects of these British laws more so than perhaps most other states. For the story of Connecticut's role in the anti-imperial struggle of 1763-1776, see Unit IV in this volume.

By 1774, Connecticut was willing to send delegates' to Philadelphia to discuss growing conflict with England. Soon, both separation and reunification in America became central considerations. The Articles of Confederation brought the thirteen colonies into a loosely knit organization. The Articles of Confederation were designed to create not a strong central government, but an assembly of equal states, each of which retained its "sovereignty, power, jurisdiction, and right." The Articles delegated to Congress the power to declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, raise and maintain armies, maintain a navy, establish a postal system, regulate Indian affairs, borrow money, issue bills of credit, and regulate the value of coin of the United States and the several states. The Articles provided for no standing agencies of enforcement: Congress could pass laws but there was no formal executive or judicial branch to execute and adjudicate them. In the debate over the Articles, three apparent problems arose: the basis for voting in Congress; the basis for "assessing contributions" to the general treasury; and the problem of western lands. Connecticut approached each problem with some trepidation. With regard to the problem of voting, three separate suggestions were made: that states' votes be proportional to population; that all states be given one vote; that votes be based upon size of the contribution to the Continental Treasury. In the final document, each state was given one vote.

Taxation, too, posed a serious problem. What basis was to be used, since Congress, under the Articles had no power to tax, the central treasury and had only those funds which the states were willing to supply. A final version was adopted that called for levies based upon population with Negro slaves being counted as three-fifths. (The Articles came into effect on March 1, 1781, at twelve noon.) The problem of western lands was not finally resolved until the Connecticut session of 1786.

Connecticut, at this tine, like most states, feared a strong central government. Some of this fear was born out of suspicion of the other states and some of it out of a distrust and hatred of the old English system. The Constitutional Convention, 1787, grew out of mounting dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation. It was not a very representative group: small farmers, city workers, frontiersmen, and much of the radical Revolutionary leadership were not represented. The meetings were all held in secret. It became evident that the delegates wanted a relatively strong central government with a visible executive and an independent judiciary and legislature. The central government was to have power to levy taxes, control interstate and foreign commerce, raise an army, protect property, have sole power to coin money, and exercise its power directly on the people. That, coupled with the Connecticut Compromise of 1787, tended to allay some of the fears. In particular, our own Roger Sherman proposed that in a two house legislature, there be a House of Representatives based upon population and a Senate based upon one vote from each state or equal representation. The United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, separation of powers, and enumerated delegations of power to the central government, it was hoped, would attract the support of the states. Connecticut ratified the document with intense opposition from only a small minority of citizens. Despite ever increasing problems of suffrage, taxation, religious liberty, etc., would wait another thirty years before adopting her own Constitution, relying on her Charter of 1662 until 1818.

About this period many evidences were given of a general combination of the neighboring Indians against the settlements of New England; and apprehensions were also entertained of hostility from the Dutch of Manhadoes. A sense of impending danger suggested the policy of forming a confederacy of the sister-colonies for their mutual defence. And so confirmed had the habit of self-government become since the attention of England was absorbed in her domestic dissensions that it was not thought necessary to consult the parent state on this important measure. After mature deliberation articles of confederation were digested; and in May, 1643, they were conclusively adopted.

By then "The United Colonies of New England" - Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven - entered into a firm and perpetual league, offensive and defensive.

Each colony retained a distinct and separate jurisdiction; no two colonies could join in one jurisdiction without the consent of the whole; and no other colony could be received into the confederacy without the like consent.

The charge of all wars was to be borne by the colonies respectively, in proportion to the male inhabitants of each between sixteen and sixty years of age.

On notice of an invasion given by three magistrates of any colony, the confederates were immediately to furnish their respective quotas. These were fixed at one hundred from Massachusetts, and forty-five from each of the other parties to the agreement. If a larger armament should be found necessary, commissioners were to meet and ascertain the number of men to be required.

Two commissioners from each government, being church members, were to meet annually on the first Monday in September. Six possessed the power of binding the whole. Any measure approved by a majority of less than six was to be referred to the general court of each colony, and the consent of all was necessary to its adoption.

They were to choose annually a president from their own body, and had power to frame laws or rules of a civil nature and of general concern. Of this description were rules which respected their conduct toward the Indians, and measures to be taken with fugitives from one colony to another.

No colony was permitted, without the general consent, to engage in war, but in sudden and inevitable cases.

If, on any extraordinary meeting of the commissioners, their whole number should not assemble, any four who should meet were empowered to determine on a war, and to call for the respective quotas of the several colonies, but not less than six could determine on the justice of the war or settle the expenses or levy the money for its support.

If any colony should be charged with breaking an article of the agreement, or with doing an injury to another colony, the complaint was to be submitted to the consideration and determination of the commissioners of such colonies as should be disinterested.

This union, the result of good-sense and of a judicious consideration of the real interests of the colonies, remained in force until their charters were dissolved. Rhode Island, at the instance of Massachusetts, was excluded; and her commissioners were not admitted into the congress of deputies, which formed the confederation.

- - - - Donald J. Surprenant


In June, 1636, the Newtown congregation, a hundred or more in number, led by their sturdy pastor, and bringing with them 160 head of cattle, made the pilgrimage to the Connecticut valley. Women and children took part in this pleasant summer journey; Mrs. Hooker, the pastor's wife, being too ill to walk, was carried on a litter. Thus, in the memorable year in which our great university was born, did Cambridge become, in the true Greek sense of a much-abused word, the metropolis or "mother town" of Hartford. The migration at once became strong in numbers. During the past twelvemonth a score of ships had brought from England to Massachusetts more than 3000 souls, and so great an accession made further movement easy. Hooker's pilgrims were soon followed by the Dorchester and Watertown congregations, and by the next May 800 people were living in Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield. As we read of these movements, not of individuals, but of organic communities, united in allegiance to a church and its pastor, and fervid with the instinct of self-government, we seem to see Greek history renewed, but with centuries of added political training. For one year a board of commissioners from Massachusetts governed the new towns, but at the end of that time the towns chose representatives and held a General Court at Hartford, and thus the separate existence of Connecticut was begun. As for Springfield, which was settled about the same time by a party from Roxbury, it remained for some years doubtful to which state it belonged. At the opening session of the General Court, May 31, 1638, Mr. Hooker preached a sermon of wonderful power, in which he maintained that the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people," "that the choice of public magistrates belongs unto the people by God's own allowance," and that "they who have power to appoint officers and magistrates have the right also to set the bounds and limitations of the power and place unto which they call them." On the 14th of January, 1639, all the freemen of the three towns assembled at Hartford and adopted a written constitution in which the hand of the great preacher is clearly discernible. It is worthy of note that this document contains none of the conventional references to a "dread sovereign" or a "gracious king," nor the slightest allusion to the British or any other government outside of Connecticut itself, nor does it prescribe any condition of church membership for the right of suffrage. It was the first written constitution known to history, that created a governrnent, and it marked the beginnings of American democracy, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father. The government of the United States today is in lineal descent more nearly related to that of Connecticut than to that of any of the other thirteen colonies. The most noteworthy feature of the Connecticut republic was that it was a federation of independent towns, and that all attributes of sovereignty not expressly granted to the General Court remained, as of original right, in the towns. Moreover, while the governor and council were chosen by a majority vote of the whole people, and by a suffrage that was almost universal, there was for each township an equality of representation in the assembly. This little federal republic was allowed to develop peacefully and normally; its constitution was not violently wrenched out of shape like that of Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century. It silently grew till it became the strongest political structure on the continent, as was illustrated in the remarkable military energy and the unshaken financial credit of Connecticut during the Revolutionary War; and in the chief crisis of the Federal Convention of 1787 Connecticut, with her compromise which secured equal state representaion in one branch of the national government and popular representation in the other, played the controlling part.

- - - JOHN FISK, 1896
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