Guest Essayist: Steve Armstrong


Connecticut is called the “Constitution State”, largely because of the Fundamental Orders, which were written by the Connecticut Colony Council in 1639.  Some have argued that this is the first constitution (a few historians say in the entire world) that empowers the citizens of a state to govern themselves.  Where other American colonies in the 1600s and early 1700s were largely governed by representatives from Great Britain, citizens of Connecticut practiced a form of self-government.  The Fundamental Orders also outlined individual rights that were given to all Connecticut citizens.

Other historians maintain that the purpose of the Fundamental Orders was merely to improve on models of government that had been developed in other colonies, including Massachusetts.  The Fundamental Orders limited the power of the Governor and statewide magistrates, and somewhat expanded the right of males to vote.  These historians argue that the Fundamental Orders are very different from an actual governing document.

King Charles II issued an official charter to Connecticut in 1662.  This charter did not have a major impact on political actions in Connecticut.  Charles’s successor, James II, wanted to control all of New England and in 1687 sent representatives to Connecticut to gain more political influence over the colony.  The King’s representatives demanded that government officials return the charter issued by Charles II.  According to rumor, the charter was hidden in an oak tree so that it could not be retrieved.

Government in Connecticut was relatively stable from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth century.  Governors and other leaders came from the same set of elite families called the “Standing Order.”  Governors were re-elected, oftentimes more than once.  In addition, the Congregational Church was the “official” church of Connecticut. Any new town had to have a Congregational church and a minister; Connecticut citizens also had to pay taxes to support the operations of the Congregational Church.  A General Assembly existed, but the Standing Order held the real social and political power in Connecticut.  In the first years of the new nation, almost all members of the Standing Order were members of the Federalist Party.

In the first years of the nineteenth century, a level of political and social discontent developed in Connecticut.  Non-Congregationalists were increasingly upset by the “official” position of the Congregational Church in Connecticut.  Farmers were being pressured by high taxes and several years of poor harvests.  The Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson began to gain popularity in the state; by 1807, roughly 1/3 of the members of the lower house of the General Assembly were Republicans.  Federalists opposed the War of 1812 (at the Hartford Convention of 1812-1813, New England Federalists came together to discuss their opposition to the war and to discuss appropriate measures to oppose the war; Federalists were accused of being traitors as the war became more popular after Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans).

A new political party developed in Connecticut called the Toleration Party. The major goals of the party were to unite all of those opposed to the status quo political, religious and social structure in Connecticut and especially to reduce the importance of the Congregational Church in the state.  In 1816, the Toleration Party won control of the lower house of the general assembly and in 1817 a member of the party, Oliver Wolcott, son of a former Standing Order governor, was elected to the same position.  Both the assembly and Governor Wolcott called for a constitutional convention which took place in 1818.

The new Connecticut constitution, eventually ratified by Connecticut citizens by a narrow margin, outlined in detail the rights that all Connecticut citizens should have.  The constitution created a system of almost universal white male suffrage.  It created a system of three branches of government with an independent judiciary (previously decisions of Connecticut’s Supreme Court could be appealed to the General Assembly).  Most importantly, the Congregational church ceased to be the official “state” church of Connecticut. All citizens of the state were given the right to practice the religion of the their choice, and no more tax dollars would go to support the Congregational Church.  According to Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward, the real victors of the constitutional changes were the Connecticut citizens tired of the lock on political power held by the Standing Order.

Many of the provisions of the 1818 Constitution lasted through the 20st century.  However, one issue that gained attention was representation in the lower house of the Connecticut assembly.  Each Connecticut town or city had equal representative in this body. Connecticut’s major cities had the same number of representatives as the smallest towns in the state.  A constitutional convention was held in 1902 to reapportion representation in the General Assembly; the voters of the state rejected the proposal on reapportionment made by that body.

The same issue became more acute in the mid-1960s when federal courts ruled that representation in the lower house of the Connecticut General Assembly (and in other states as well) violated “one man one vote” decisions handed down by the United States Supreme Court.  Federal courts mandated that Connecticut was going have to reapportion its system of representation.  A constitutional convention was convened in 1965, with 42 Republican and 42 Democratic delegates.

The constitutional convention reapportioned membership in both the Connecticut Senate and House of Representatives. The previous system giving each town and city equal representation was completely abandoned.  The new constitution gave Connecticut voters the opportunity to call for a constitutional convention every twenty years. Mandatory party-lever voting was also stopped.  Connecticut voters approved the 1965 constitutional changes by a large margin.

Connecticut has been able to avoid the violent upheavals that have accompanied political changes in other states and regions. Major conferences were held and articles were written in Connecticut last year on the reasons for and results of the Constitution of 1818.  Connecticut is often called the “Land of Steady Habits,” and the system of local control established by the Fundamental Orders of 1639 as still a fundamental feature of the belief-system in Connecticut today.

Stephen Armstrong serves as the Connecticut Board of Education’s Social Studies Consultant and an adjunct instructor in the history department at Central Connecticut State University. Prior service includes that of social studies department supervisor in the West Hartford, Connecticut public schools; past president of the National Council for the Social Studies; and past president of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies, the Connecticut Committee for the Promotion of History, and the New England History Teachers Association. A resident of  lives in South Windsor, Connecticut, Armstrong has presented workshops on the use of popular music in the social studies classroom and led numerous travel trips for teachers and students. He has presented workshops at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Bethel Woods Museum for the Arts located on the site of the original Woodstock Music Festival.   

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