As one of the original thirteen colonies, Connecticut holds a unique place in the history of democratic government in what became the United States of America. The Puritan Congregationalists who settled New England were well known for their town meetings and representative government. The Fundamental Orders, which formed the first written system of government in Connecticut, were formulated in 1639 by representatives from the towns of Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor. The Orders provided for the creation of a single legislative body known as the General Assembly and outlined the process for the election of magistrates. Of those magistrates, one was elected to serve for a single year as a fairly weak governor, and serving consecutive terms was prohibited. All freemen within the colony had the right to vote in these elections, and paper ballots were used in town meetings to determine the outcome. The Reverend Thomas Hooker presaged the representative nature of the Fundamental Orders by preaching a sermon in which he noted that "the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people." The Fundamental Orders are the reason why Connecticut is known today as the Constitution State.
The Fundamental Orders were replaced by the colonial charter of 1662; that charter continued to follow the essential character of the Orders. After the Revolution, only Connecticut and Rhode Island continued to operate under their colonial charters. Until a formal state constitution was created in 1818, Connecticut government operated on the basis of the Fundamental Orders. Some things did, however, change in the years during which the charter was in operation. In 1698 the General Assembly was divided into two houses and was composed of 200 representatives, one or two from each of the towns. Elections were held semi-annually in the April and September freemen’s meetings. Any freeman could run for office.
Even though the state government was seemingly democratic in nature, the aristocracy controlled most matters. The colonial charter had created a council of twelve assistants, which served as the upper house of the Assembly, and it retained tight control over governmental matters. As historians have noted, "Its supremacy derived from the continuity of its members in office and the veto they exercised over most of the General Assembly's actions."
Historian Richard Purcell notes that from 1775 to 1818, Connecticut was a state in transition: "The result was the bloodless Revolution of 1818, which gave the state a constitution as democratic as any then in existence." In the midst of these years, the nation witnessed not only a new system of government, with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, but also the rise of a fierce two-party system of Federalists and Republicans, who did battle over what they perceived to by the proper political and economic direction of government. Connecticut became a staunchly Federalist state. Until 1819, every senator and congressman sent to the national Congress belonged to the Federalist Party, and until 1818, every seat in the upper house of the Connecticut Assembly was Federalist. It was not until 1817, with the election of Oliver Wolcott, Jr., that a Republican managed to take control of the governor's office.
The Federalist Party was marked by the more traditional notion of deferential, and aristocratic, beliefs in government. It was assumed that only men of higher standing were fit for office and should control the affairs of government. Federalists feared the "mob" of democracy, which they associated with the rise of Jefferson's Republican Party. Federalists were so firmly entrenched within Connecticut that it was particularly difficult for the Jeffersonians to work their way into the state. Yearly elections took place, but the nominating system was skillfully controlled by the Federalists, who possessed an almost machine-like domination. By 1801 they had passed a "stand up" law, which replaced the written ballots cast in the freemen's meetings with a requirement to raise one's hand or stand up to show a vote. Like other forms of voice voting, this effectively stymied opposition by engendering fear of retribution.
Even as the Republican Party continued to grow and spread throughout the South and Middle Atlantic region, New England—and Connecticut along with it remained almost exclusively Federalist. By 1800, with Jefferson taking over in what many termed a revolution, Federalists clung to power and fought any reforms that might allow broader democracy, and with it the Republican Party, into the state. Still, murmurings continued to grow over the inequity of taxes, the unfair apportionment of seats in the state government, certain election laws, and legislation that favored the Congregational Church, which was supported by tax money. The murmurings grew to open revolt by the second decade of the 1800s, in part because of the Federalist opposition to the War of 1812 and because of the infamous Hartford Convention. The result was the new constitution of 1818. This was the very wedge needed to allow the Democratic-Republicans to compete in the state. Even with that party's entrance, however, the going was slow. The state continued to exhibit its generally more aristocratic leanings and was decidedly against the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1824 and 1828. Even though Gideon Wells had by 1820 established a nascent Democratic Party in Connecticut, Jackson's party and administration did little to attract votes in Connecticut, or in New England more broadly. The Democratic Party viewed Connecticut as populated by opponents and as falling far more in line with the newly developed Whig Party. Indeed, it was not until the mid-1830s to 1840s, well into the evolution of the second American party system, that Democrats managed to compete with Whigs within the state.
- Buell, Richard, Jr. and George J. Willauer.
Original Discontents: Commentaries on the Creation of Connecticut's Constitution of 1818.Hamden, CT: The Acorn Club, 2007.
- Morse, Jarvis Means.
A Neglected Period of Connecticut's History, 1818–1850.New York: Octagon Books, 1978
- Purcell, Richard J.
Connecticut in Transition: 1775–1818.Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.
Selectman: One of a board of officers elected annually to manage various local concerns in a ‘town’ or ‘township’ in New England.
Oxford English Dictionary
1795 - 1824: Massachusetts, New Hampshire
Office Scope: Town
Role Scope: Town