Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
Driving through Connecticut, you’ll see license plates with the words “Constitution State” inscribed at the bottom of the plate. But wait! Wasn’t the Constitution drafted in Pennsylvania, known as the Keystone State? And wasn’t Delaware, known as the First State, the first state to ratify the Constitution? So why is Connecticut called the Constitution State?
Connecticut did play an important role in the drafting of the United States Constitution, proposing the Connecticut Compromise, also known as the Great Compromise, breaking the impasse created by delegates who favored proportional representation by population and opposed by delegates who favored equal representation by state. Certainly a justifiable reason for Connecticut to call itself the Constitution State, for without that important compromise, a Constitution may never have been agreed upon by delegates from both large and small states.
However, that was not the reason for the adoption of the motto “Constitution State.” John Fiske, a historian born in Hartford in 1842, stated that the Fundamental Orders of 1639, a social compact created among three towns in what later became the colony of Connecticut, was the first Constitution created in the United States. The preamble to the document states that, to “maintain the peace and union of such a people, an orderly and decent Government should be established according to God.”
Ordered liberty, defined as “freedom limited by the need for order in society,” is a concept well known by our Founding Fathers. The roots of ordered liberty can be traced back thousands of years. Religious liberty was the motivation for the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620; all of them knew their Biblical history of freedom, anarchy, enslavement, totalitarianism, secession, and rejection.
Among other Biblical examples, they may have considered the Book of Nehemiah. After the fall of Judah in 586 BC, the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. Beginning in 538 BC, groups of Israelites began returning to Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. Over the subsequent 100 years, the city had no effective government, no militia, and the protective walls of the city lay in ruins. In 432 BC, Nehemiah, an Israelite serving the Persian King in Babylon as Cupbearer, had become frustrated hearing from Israelites of the conditions in Jerusalem and received permission from the King to lead a group to Jerusalem to restore order. He had no expertise in construction management, the politics of government, or military tactics, yet, he quickly took command after arriving in Jerusalem and led the citizens to complete the wall of the city, to organize a formal government, and to organize a militia to defend the city.
Recognizing the need for ordered liberty in their new settlement, the Pilgrims, before landing at Plymouth Rock, drafted a compact for the new village they were about to create near current-day Boston; that document, the Mayflower Compact, reflected the Pilgrims’ commitment to God and to the English King.
Soon thereafter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was chartered by King Charles I in 1629. In 1630, an English lawyer, Roger Ludlow, arrived in Massachusetts and settled in Dorchester. He quickly became involved in Massachusetts political life and helped draft laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, after only five years in Dorchester, he and other Pilgrims, dissatisfied with religious conflicts in Massachusetts, left Massachusetts to establish a new religious community in what later became the Connecticut Colony. Ludlow settled in Windsor and others settled in the villages of Wethersfield and Hartford, all very close to each other. The three villages were self-governing, but had to unite to fight the Pequot Indians.
Recognizing the need to unite more formally, the three towns, led by Ludlow’s legal expertise, drafted the Fundamental Orders, a formal compact to establish the principles for an orderly confederation-style of government for the three towns. In a sermon that encouraged Ludlow to create the text of the Fundamental Orders, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Hartford, dynamic preacher, and inspiration for the Fundamental Orders, said that “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people. As God has given us liberty let us take it.” Hooker is considered by some to be the father of American democracy. His statement regarding the free consent of the people may have been the first expression in the colonies of a key principle that, more than 100 years later, would find its way into our nation’s founding documents.
Unlike many social compacts at the time, the Connecticut document recognized no allegiance on the part of the colonists to England, but in effect set up an independent government. The Fundamental Orders were intended to be a framework of government more permanent than a compact, and in essence, a constitution. Simeon E. Baldwin, a former Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, defended Fiske’s view that the Fundamental Orders of 1639 was the first Constitution created in the United States by stating that
“never had a company of men deliberately met to frame a social compact for immediate use, constituting a new and independent commonwealth, with definite officers, executive and legislative, and prescribed rules and modes of government, until the first planters of Connecticut came together for their great work on January 14th, 1638-9.”
Whereas the Mayflower Compact was designed for a single community, the Fundamental Orders was designed for three communities, further evidence that it was a Constitution, much like the later United States Constitution designed to bring unity among 13 colonies. Also, some features of the Fundamental Orders prefigured the United States Constitution, even if not in exact form. The Orders provided for yearly elections conducted in accordance with Direct Democracy format, appropriate for smaller communities. An annual election was held, during which a Governor and six Magistrates were elected to serve a one-year term of office. Each town also elected two Representatives to a unicameral legislature which met each September in a legislative session. This prefigured the Representative Democracy to be devised in 1787, although the latter resulted in a bicameral legislature. Freemen had a right of petition; and a method was devised to tax each town to raise funds as required for administration of the government. Liberty of speech was emphasized in the Orders and “unseasonable and disorderly speakings” were discouraged. The office of the Secretary of State was officially established in the Fundamental Orders of 1639 and has continued to exist since that time, the oldest Office of the Secretary of State in the United States.
It wasn’t until 100 years later that the Connecticut legislature acted upon Fiske’s opinion about the Fundamental Orders being the first Constitution created in the United States. In 1959, the legislature officially designated Connecticut’s nickname to be The Constitution State. In anticipation of the upcoming bicentennial of the founding of the United States, in 1973 the Connecticut legislature mandated that Connecticut’s license plates should display the state slogan the assembly had adopted 14 years earlier.
Interestingly, Roger Ludlow, the primary architect of the Connecticut Fundamental Orders, grew weary of the challenges of colonial life, and returned to England in 1654, where he died and is buried.
Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.