History of the Connecticut Constitution
Connecticut is known as the “constitution state.” While the origin on this title is uncertain, the nickname is assumed to reference the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39. These Fundamental Orders represent the framework for the first formal government written by a representative body in Connecticut. Connecticut’s government has operated under the direction of five separate documents in its history. The Connecticut Colony at Hartford was governed by the Fundamental Orders, and the Quinnipiac Colony at New Haven had its own Constitution, 'The Fundamental Agreement of the New Haven Colony' which was signed on 4 June 1639.
In 1662, Connecticut was granted governmental authority by King Charles II of England and royal charter. While these two documents acted to lay the groundwork for the state’s government, both lacked essential characteristics of a constitution. Separate branches of government did not exist during this period, and the General Assembly acted as the supreme authority. A true constitution was not adopted in Connecticut until 1818. Finally, the current state constitution was implemented in 1965. The 1965 constitution absorbed a majority of its 1818 predecessor, but incorporated a handful of important modifications.
- 1 The Fundamental Orders
- 2 Connecticut's Foundation as a Religious Colony
- 3 Voting Rights
- 4 Separation of Powers from 1639-1818
- 5 The Connecticut Charter of 1662
- 6 The Story of the Charter Oak
- 7 Connecticut Governance After the Revolution
- 8 The Constitution of 1818
- 9 Constitution of 1965
- 10 See also
- 11 References
The Fundamental Orders
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On January 14, 1639, the Fundamental Orders were adopted in Connecticut. This document has often been referred to as the world’s first written constitution. At the urging of influential preacher Thomas Hooker, the Connecticut legislative body, or General Court, began secret committee meetings to discuss the drafting of the orders in June 1638. The Council completed its efforts by the beginning of 1639 and shortly thereafter the Fundamental Orders became the cornerstone of government in Connecticut.
Connecticut's Foundation as a Religious Colony
Connecticut was originally founded by Congregationalists who split away from the Massachusetts colony between 1635 and 1636. The first settlers founded three towns on the Connecticut River in Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford. One of the main purposes of the Fundamental Orders was to formalize the relationship between these three towns. The core foundation of the Fundamental Orders incorporates the ingrained religious background of the colony’s founders. They called for “an orderly and decent government according to God” in attempts to pursue “The liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Until 1818, the Congregational Church stood as the established church of the state. All Connecticut residents were required to attend church and/or pay taxes to support the Congregational faith. Anyone belonging to another Christian sect such as Baptist, Episcopal, or Quaker, had to provide documentation signed by a church officer indicating attendance and financial support of their separate church in order to avoid paying taxes to the Congregationalists. The Danbury Association, in a letter to President Jefferson, referred to it as a “degrading acknowledgement” as they complained on the lack of religious liberty or rather the lack of a separation of church and State in Connecticut. Furthermore, the Fundamental Orders states in “Section 4, ……and that the Governor be always a member of some approved congregation…….” Also, a person elected to be Governor would have to recite an oath that included such language as “…God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Then again in 1639 the language from "Query V. ……that the choice of burgesses, out of church members…….that church members only shall be free burgesse…….. is indicative of the lack or religious liberty at that time in Connecticut.
Voting rights were limited under the Fundamental Orders. All Caucasian males at least twenty-one years of age could become a freeman, or a voter, if he met certain property qualifications. In order to vote, the citizen must have owned real estate assessed at a yearly rental value of 40 shillings ($7.00) or owned taxable property assessed at 40 pounds ($134). Since cattle were the only personal property assessable at this time, voting rights were practically restricted to land owners. African-Americans could not constitutionally vote in Connecticut until 1865, when a decision from the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors secured their right to vote. Women could not vote until the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed in 1920.
Separation of Powers from 1639-1818
Prior to the implementation of the first official constitution in 1818, Connecticut’s government had no separation of powers. The legislative body, the General Court, began as a one house legislature that wielded supreme authority. Although the General Court split in 1698 and was renamed the General Assembly, it continued to enjoy dominance over the executive and the judiciary until 1818. After the split, the General Assembly consisted of two houses, the Council and the Assembly. The Council, the more powerful of the two houses, consisted of the ex officio governor and lieutenant governor and twelve elected assistants. The twelve assistants were not selected from particular jurisdictions, but rather represented the state at large. The Council varied in number up to 200 members, with each town sending either one or two representatives.
Aside from an automatic position on the Council, the position of governor was highly symbolic. The executive had no power of pardon and no ability to veto bills passed by the General Assembly. Under the Fundamental Orders, the maximum term for the governor was two years and he could not succeed himself. For many years, John Haynes and Edward Hopkins took turns with the position, each serving a two year term and then rotating back to the role of lieutenant governor. The primary responsibilities of the governor were as an official statesman and a member of the legislature. Before the split into two houses, the governor acted as the moderator of the General Court. Afterwards, he held the spot on the Council. The impotence of the governor was subject to the important exception of the Revolutionary War, during which time his position as commander-in-chief of the state militia rendered the office extremely importance.
Perhaps the least influential branch of government under the Fundamental Orders was the judiciary. Until 1818, the legislative branch was the court of final resort in the state, holding appellate jurisdiction over all lower courts. If a litigant was dissatisfied with the court’s decision, he simply had to go to the legislature to request review. This often led to circumstances where a representative or assistant sat in review of a case in which he was personally interested, either as an attorney, litigant, or friend of one of the parties. When it became too burdensome for the entire assembly to handle appeals, the Supreme Court of Errors was created in 1784. Instead of being composed of the entire assembly, only the members of the Council sat as the Supreme Court of Errors. This change failed to alleviate many of the conflict of interest problems inherent in the appellate process.
Under political pressure, the General Assembly changed the makeup of the Supreme Court of Errors in 1806. Members of the Council no longer sat on the court. Instead, the nine Superior Court judges acted as the Supreme Court of Errors when all of them sat together. While this created a judicial body, the General Assembly still retained the power to reverse decisions of the court. It also resulted in the constant situation of a Superior Court judge sitting in review of a case he had presided over at the trial level.
The most infamous example of legislative interference with the courts occurred in 1815. In that year, Peter Lung was convicted of murder and subsequently sentenced to death. After Lung filed a petition with the General Assembly, his conviction was overturned. It is believed that Mr. Lung’s political influence largely contributed to his conviction’s reversal by the legislature. Upon retrial, the court promptly convicted and executed Mr. Lung. Lung’s Case outraged all Connecticut judges, most notably Chief Justice Zephaniah Swift, who spoke out for judicial independence in a pamphlet the following year. Establishment of an independent judiciary became one of the central rallying cries in support of a new constitution.
The Connecticut Charter of 1662
In 1660, King Charles II reassumed the monarchy in England, effectively ending the period of the English Revolution. Since Connecticut had never been officially recognized as a colony by the crown, the General Court determined that the independence of Connecticut must be legitimized. Connecticut’s governor, John Winthrop, Jr., was sent as an emissary to negotiate with the English government, and set sail for England on July 23, 1661. He proved successful in his mission, and the English attorney general approved a bill for incorporation of the Connecticut Charter. After being officially sealed and registered, the document was returned to Connecticut and adopted by the General Court on October 9, 1662.
The Connecticut Charter displaced the Fundamental Orders to become the governing authority for the colony. Its practical effect on the government however, was minimal and Connecticut continued to operate much as it had under the Fundamental Orders. The Charter did however, incorporate a few noteworthy changes. All colonials in Connecticut were given “all liberties and immunities” of the realm of England. The governor was granted the additional power of the authority to convene a session of the General Court. Freemen were stripped of this ability. The most surprising aspect of the Charter concerned the geographical boundaries of Connecticut. The colony’s borders were to be Narragansett Bay on the east and Massachusetts on the north. Of greater significance however, was Connecticut’s southwestern boundary which expanded to the “South Sea on the West.” While Connecticut’s borders never approached this limitation, the Charter placed the separate territory of New Haven squarely within Connecticut’s jurisdiction. It is believed that this expansion by Charles II was quite deliberate. Several “regicide” judges who sentenced Charles I of England to death had subsequently sought and been given refuge in New Haven, and Charles II may have been exacting revenge upon New Haven. After a brief dispute, New Haven decided to voluntarily join Connecticut in 1665. Today the city of New Haven still maintains Three Judges Cave on West Rock, as a tribute to the regicides who hid from Charles II's agents.
The Story of the Charter Oak
For one brief period in Connecticut history, neither the authority of the Fundamental Orders, the Charter, or a constitution governed the state. Edmund Andros was appointed governor of New York in 1675, and promptly demanded that Connecticut surrender its charter and fall under his authority. Connecticut refused to submit and Andros lay dormant until 1686, when he served a writ on the governor, again demanding the surrender of the charter. By October 31, 1687, Andros decided to take matters into his own hands, arriving in Hartford with a band of soldiers.
While the historical accuracy of the story is somewhat uncertain, legend has it that Andros meet with the leaders of the colony one night at the meetinghouse where the charter was to be relinquished. With the Charter lying on a table, colonists blew out the candles throwing the shadow of darkness over the room. When the lights were reignited, the Charter had vanished. Joseph Wadsworth absconded with the document and hid it in an oak tree on the Wyllys estate. This tree thereafter became known as the Charter Oak, a famous landmark in Connecticut. While the accuracy of this tale has never been confirmed, one thing is for certain: Edmund Andros never got his hands on the Charter.
Despite this accomplishment, Andros briefly succeeded in forcing Connecticut to succumb to his rule. The General Court of Connecticut declared itself dissolved. Andros’s reign ended in 1688. The Glorious Revolution took place in England in November of that year, and James II of England was overthrown in favor of William and Mary of England. Andros was deposed from power shortly thereafter.
Connecticut was left with several options of how to restart its government. Some advocated for direct ties to the crown with a royal government. Others lobbied for the drafting of a completely new charter. Ultimately, Connecticut opted to return to the status quo. The government under the Charter was reinstated, including the reinsertion of all leaders previously in place before the interruption. In May 1689, the General Court issued a declaration that, “all the laws of this colony formerly made, according to the Charter, and Courts constituted in this colony for administration of justice as they were before the late interruption, shall be of full force and virtue for the future…” After reaching this conclusion, the colony quickly petitioned the newly installed monarchy for approval of their return to operation under the Charter. In the mean time, Benjamin Fletcher, the new governor of New York, attempted to claim military authority over Connecticut. Fitz John Wintrop, John Winthrop, Jr.’s son, went as the emissary to England much like his father had more than thirty years earlier in 1661. Also like his father, Fitz Wintrop proved successful in his mission. The Attorney General and Solicitor General reported to King William III of England that the charter remained valid, and the king ratified this report on April 19, 1694. This represented the end of serious challenges to Connecticut’s sovereignty.
For the rest of its colonial history, Connecticut dealt with the Charter much the same as it had the Fundamental Orders. The Charter could be altered simply by a majority vote from the General Assembly. This was particularly remarkable, because the Charter had been granted by the signature of the king, yet London was never consulted about alterations of the Charter. This suggests that Connecticut primarily sought authorization for self-government from the king, but that it did not expect England to supervise the evolution of its government.
Connecticut Governance After the Revolution
The General Assembly formally approved the Declaration of Independence with the other colonies, especially since its own Roger Sherman had helped draft it. In its resolution the legislature declared that Connecticut’s government, “shall continue to be as established by Charter received from Charles the second, King of England, so far as an adherence to the same will be consistent with an absolute independence of this State on the Crown of Great Britain…” Even in independence Connecticut wished to remain governed by King Charles’ Charter. While eleven of the thirteen colonies had drafted state constitutions by 1786, Connecticut elected to continue operation under the Charter. Connecticut forged ahead under this scheme of government until 1818, when the first true constitution was adopted.
The Constitution of 1818
In 1818, Connecticut was entirely in the control of the Federalist Party and the established Congregationalist Church. Though the Democratic-Republican party had been organized in 1804, Connecticut, known as "the land of steady habits" for its custom of re-electing those in power in elected power until they died, it remained the last holdout of the Federalist party in America. It was also the last state to effectively have an established state religion, and a Constitution going back to the days of the British Empire. In 1815, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Methodists, and other members of other dissident denominations to the established Congregationalist church, combined with the Democratic-Republican party to form the Toleration Party. In 1816, they held a convention and ran a slate of candidates. In 1817, they took control of the state Assembly (lower house), and elected Oliver Wolcott, Jr. as Governor, and Jonathan Ingersoll as Lieutenant-governor.
In 1639, a year after the founding of the state, the Rev. Thomas Hooker gave a sermon that formed the basis of Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first state Constitution. Since then,an "Anniversary Election Sermon" was given at the Center Church in Hartford to celebrate the fusion of church and state. After a procession through Hartford of militia, assemblymen, and clerics from all over the state, a prominent cleric would preach a political sermon to the assembly, who would then order the better ones printed. One measure of the event's importance is the attention given to the sometimes long winded sermons: President Ezra Stiles of Yale preached one in 1783 that lasted five hours and was 99 pages when printed.
Governor Wolcott, knowing the Toleration Party would, after the spring elections of 1818, soon have the votes to take a slim majority in the upper house as well, asked the Episcopalian Rev. Harry Croswell to give the politically important Anniversary Election Sermon the next year, an event that would signal the end of the Standing-Order in Connecticut. Croswell, a former Federalist crusading journalist who had been sued for seditious libel by the Jefferson-party in New York in the famous People v. Croswell case, had entirely abandoned politics for religion; he was now the Rector of the large and influential Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut. But instead of giving the expected triumphant political sermon, or yet another standard election sermon of the sort that had been delivered since almost the founding of Connecticut in 1638, he gave an Election sermon in the spring of 1818 that strongly insisted on the total separation of church and state. Croswell's sermon had strong and immediate impact. It was ordered printed in an unprecedented four editions around the state: composed by a former newspaper editor from a time when paper was scarce and space was tight, it was only 11 pages when printed, or about 30 minuets long when preached.
Meeting just after the unusually short Anniversary Election Sermon was delivered, the General Assembly made a significant change to voting rights in Connecticut. All white males who paid taxes or served in the militia were deemed eligible to vote. This eliminated the previous property requirements that had grown onerous as more of the population moved to jobs in commerce or manufacturing rather than agriculture.
Even more significantly, the General Assembly also called for a constitutional convention that year. The most important ballots cast in the General Assembly was the vote on whether only a simple majority of the legislature would be required to approve whatever constitution was ultimately drafted. Many favored requiring anywhere from a sixty to eighty percent majority for adoption of a new government.
It seems that Croswell's well-received and powerful short sermon was efficacious; those in favor of a simple majority carried the vote by 81-80. Thus single vote margin passed the resolution vital to the future success of the constitution that would, among other things, disestablish the state church, separate church and state, and end the last theocracy in America.
Each town sent a number of delegates equal to the number of representatives held in the Assembly. The convention convened in Hartford on August 26, 1818. As one of the first orders of business, a twenty-four man committee was appointed to prepare a draft constitution. The very next day the committee returned with the Preamble and Bill of Rights. Their speed was not due to ingenuity. The draft was borrowed almost verbatim from the constitution Mississippi created a year earlier in 1817. After the remainder of the constitution was drafted, the convention approved the document by a two to one margin on September 16, 1818. The voters were given three weeks to consider the proposed constitution. On October 5, a vote was held. A majority cast their ballots in favor of the constitution, with the resolution passing 13,918 to 12,364. The ultimate vote proved the importance of requiring only a simple majority’s approval, for a sixty or eighty percent requirement would not have been met.
As a result of the new constitution, the Congregational Church was finally disestablished, although Christianity remained the constitutionally favored religion. Newly received voting rights were also solidified, as the convention provided constitutional rights to vote for all white males who paid taxes or had served in the militia. With the 1818 Constitution, separation of powers was finally brought to Connecticut government. An independent judiciary was approved. Both Supreme and Superior Court judges were now given life tenure to the age of seventy (this was changed to eight years in 1856). The Supreme Court of Errors was reduced to five judges, with each judge retaining a role as a Superior Court judge. Decisions of the court could no longer be appealed to the legislature.
The constitution did not significantly change the role of the executive, and the branch remained relatively weak. The executive did however, became a constitutional and independent part of the government. The governor was no longer granted a seat in the legislature. He was granted the new power of veto, but any of his vetos could be overruled by a simple majority vote from the Assembly. This made the veto power essentially useless since any bill would have to pass both houses by a majority anyway. The General Assembly retained the authority to nominate judges under the new constitution. This was not changed until 1880, when nomination powers were transferred to the governor.
The legislative branch also experienced a few changes. The Council was renamed the Senate. By constitutional mandate, half the legislative sessions were to take place in Hartford with the other half convening in New Haven. Surprisingly, the method in which towns were assigned a number of representatives was left unchanged. Each town predating the constitution retained two representatives in the lower house regardless of population, with the exception of several newer towns which were granted one vote. Although many amendments were added over the years, the Constitution of 1818 remained in operation until 1965. There was also a Constitution of 1955, but it merely incorporated prior amendments into the main body of the constitution.
Constitution of 1965
Connecticut currently operates under the constitution passed in 1965. The primary purpose of the 1965 constitutional convention was reapportionment of the representatives in the lower legislative house. Assigning each town one or two representatives had resulted in grossly disproportional representation. Small rural towns enjoyed equal representation with large urban communities. Apart from this major change, a majority of the language from the 1818 Constitution was reaffirmed verbatim or almost verbatim in 1965. Non-Christians were finally granted official freedom of religion in 1965, although a law had been passed by the legislature in 1843 which recognized Jews’ right to worship, though these laws were largely ignored following large-scale Jewish and Catholic immigration in the last half of the 19th century. The reference to Christianity from the earlier constitution was deleted. After 1965, the Supreme Court of Errors’ title was changed to the Connecticut Supreme Court. The executive obtained a significant power under the new constitution. The governor still does not enjoy the privilege of pardon, but the office was granted a more significant power of veto under the latest constitution. Instead of being able to be overridden by a second majority vote, the legislature now must muster two-thirds support in both houses to defeat a veto. Also of note, the 1965 Constitution includes a constitutional right to free public education. In addition, the most recent constitution has provided a mechanism to convene future constitutional conventions if necessary.
The Constitution of 1965 remains the supreme authority in Connecticut today. It represents the fourth distinct document in state history laying out the mechanics for its form of government. Connecticut is known as the Constitution State because of its early adoption of the Fundamental Orders in 1639, thought to be the earliest document of its kind in western civilization. Since that time Connecticut has undergone several constitutional crises and alterations, which have led the state to its present state of affairs today.
- The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639).
- Rhode Island was the only other colony not to draft a constitution by this point.
- Olsen, Neil C., The End of Theocracy in America: The Distinguishing Line of Harry Croswell’s Election Sermon, including a transcription of A Sermon Preached at the Anniversary Election, Hartford, May 14, 1818 by the Rev. Harry Croswell, A.M., Rector of Trinity Church, New Haven, Nonagram Publications, ISBN 978-1478365463, 2013, p. 28
- Olsen, p. 63
- Olsen, p. 63
- Olsen, p. 81
- Wesley W. Horton, The Connecticut State Constitution (Greenwood Press) (1993).
- Jarvis Means Morse, A Neglected Period of Connecticut's History 1818-1850 (Octagon Books 1978) (1933).
- Richard J. Purcell, Connecticut in Transition: 1775-1818, (Wesleyan University Press 1963) (11918).
- David M. Roth and Freeman Meyer, From Revolution to Constitution, Connecticut 1763-1818 (The Pequot Press 1975).
- Olsen, Neil C., The End of Theocracy in America: The Distinguishing Line of Harry Croswell’s Election Sermon, including a transcription of A Sermon Preached at the Anniversary Election, Hartford, May 14, 1818 by the Rev. Harry Croswell, A.M., Rector of Trinity Church, New Haven, Nonagram Publications, ISBN 978-1478365463, 2013.