On the 26th of July, 1637, there arrived at Boston the most opulent company that had thus far emigrated from England. Every possible inducement was offered to keep them in Massachusetts, but they decided to found a distinct colony. Having learned of the beauty of the country lying west of the mouth of the Connecticut River, they sent a few of their number to spy out the land.
This company, in charge of Theophilus Eaton, one of their prominent and wealthy men, selected, as the most attractive and eligible spot for the future home of the colony, the present site of the city of New Haven. Here they built a temporary hut, and left it in charge of a few servants for the winter. On the 30th of the following March, the entire company set sail for the harbor of Quinnipiac, which they reached after a tedious voyage of two weeks.
Their first sabbath was strictly kept with religious services held under the spreading branches of an oak-tree, supposed to have stood near the present corner of College and George Streets. The Rev. John Davenport,1 whose name occupies a distinguished place in the early history of the colony, preached a sermon warning them of the trials of the wilderness, and was followed in a discourse from his colleague, the Rev. Mr. Prudden, from the text, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
In November, Theophilus Eaton, Mr. Davenport, and other gentlemen, made a contract with the Indian sachem Momangin, in reference to a sale of lands. It is a curious document, being of the nature of a treaty as well as a deed of sale of Quinnipiac. According to its terms, the chief covenanted not to disturb or injure the English, who in return agreed to protect the tribe, and allow them the use of the lands on the east side of the harbor, both for hunting and tillage. On the 11th of December another large tract of land was deeded to the same gentlemen by Montowese.
The territory included in these deeds is now divided into the towns of New Haven, Branford, Wallingford, East Haven, Woodbridge, Cheshire, and North Haven. Twenty-three English coats, with sundry other articles, was the consideration named in the deeds, with the right to hunt and plant and fish with few restrictions; but the protection of the colonists was of far more value to the little Indian tribe than gold or silver would have been.
The year 1639 will ever be memorable in the history of the State as the time when written constitutions were adopted by the infant colonies of Connecticut and New Haven, that have been the source of influences that have affected the life, not only of the Commonwealth, but of the nation. The band of earnest, thoughtful men and refined women, who laid the foundations of these two colonies, were many of them of gentle birth. Their clergymen were university graduates, of high reputation for learning and eloquence; and the leading citizens had won wealth and position before emigrating to the wilderness of the New World.
They did not leave homes of comfort in England to seek the advancement of their material fortune. The star of hope that led them across the ocean, and gave them courage to subdue the wilderness and endure privation, was luminous with the light of religious and civil liberty. Their earliest thought and care were given to laying the foundations of communities that should embody and illustrate principles of spiritual, ecclesiastical, and political freedom, dear to them as life.
During the first year of the settlement of New Haven, the colonists lived under a simple compact to obey the Scriptures. On the 4th of June, 1639, all of the free planters met in a large barn,2 and proceeded in a formal manner to lay the foundations of government. The Bible was made the sole rule for ordering the affairs of the Commonwealth, and church members were alone admitted to the rights of citizenship.
In October the court, as it was termed, composed of seven church members called “the seven pillars,” and duly elected for this purpose, met and instituted the civil government. All of those who were connected with approved churches were accepted as voting members of the Commonwealth, and Theophilus Eaton was chosen governor of the colony.3
For many reasons, the history of the first Constitution of Connecticut is of deep interest. During the first year after the settlement of Wethersfield, Windsor, and Hartford, the government was under a commission from Massachusetts. In April, 1636, Roger Ludlow and four associates held a General Court in Hartford, and among other acts passed a law forbidding the sale of firearms to the Indians. In May of the following year, the towns appointed delegates to participate with the magistrates in the counsels of the court.
At the opening session of this body, May 31, 1638, the Rev. Thomas Hooker preached a remarkable sermon, in which he declared “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.” He gave two reasons for this assertion, – first, “Because the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people;” second, “Because by a free choice the hearts of the people will be more inclined to the love of the persons chosen, and more ready to yield obedience.”
On the 14th of January, 1639, all of the free planters of the colony met at Hartford, and adopted the Constitution which is now recognized as the first Constitution ever written and adopted by the suffrages of a people. It will always, probably, be a matter of doubt as to whose pen draughted this remarkable document; but there is every reason to believe that the principles which it contains were suggested by the far-seeing and liberty-loving mind of Thomas Hooker. Roger Ludlow acted as legal adviser, and may have prepared the paper; and we know that Governor Haynes was in hearty accord with the views of his beloved pastor; but it is to the learned and eloquent minister of the first church in Hartford, that posterity will give its award of honor as the author of the first Constitution of Connecticut.
It is noteworthy that this document expressed no allegiance to the British crown, but lodged the supreme power in the General Court. It contained the seed-truth of principles which were in time to produce the fruit of our independent national life.
“More than two centuries have elapsed,” says Bancroft. “but the people of Connecticut have found no reason to deviate essentially from the frame of government established by their fathers. History has ever celebrated the heroes who have won laurels in scenes of carnage. Has it no place for the wise legislators who struck the rock in the wilderness, and the waters of liberty gushed forth in copious and perennial streams? They who judge of men by their services to the human race will never cease to honor the memory of Hooker, and will join with it that of Ludlow, and still more that of Haynes.”
After the adoption of the Constitution, the freemen of the towns in the colony met at Hartford on the second Thursday in April, 1639, and elected their officers for the year ensuing. John Haynes4 was chosen governor, and Roger Ludlow5 deputy-governor.
The Constitution provided that the freemen of each town should elect every year, by vote, four persons as deputies to the General Court. Each year a court of election was to assemble on the second Thursday of April (afterwards changed to May), for the purpose of choosing a governor and six magistrates. Only those could be chosen as magistrates whose names had been proposed at some preceding session of the court. No town could make more than two nominations, but the General Court added as many as it thought best. At the court of election each freeman cast a ballot, upon which was written his choice for governor for the following year, a plurality vote electing. The governor must be a church member; and the rule held until 1660, that no one could be chosen to the office two years in succession. At the court of election the secretary read the nominations for magistrates in the order in which they had been received. When a name was read, the freemen handed in either a blank ballot counting against the candidate, or one having his name upon it. The balloting continued until six names had received a majority of the votes cast. In case the full number were not thus obtained, those names were added which had received the largest number of votes. The governor, magistrates, and deputies met as a General Court on the second Thursday of September, to make laws, and attend to the affairs of the Commonwealth. The office of magistrate was very important, as the duties that now devolve upon the selectmen of the towns were in their charge; and, until the charter was secured, they exercised judicial functions, and looked after other matters as directed by the General Court. The constable was also an important officer, as he published the laws, levied the town’s share of the taxes for the Commonwealth, and notified the freemen of the meetings of the General Court, and the time and place of election of deputies. From 1656 Connecticut placed upon her common seal, vines to represent her towns. At first there were three for the original towns. On the fifth page of the first revision of the laws of the colony made in 1672, and published at Cambridge, Mass., in 1673, the seal has fifteen vines. As the towns became more numerous, the original three vines were placed on the seal.
Source: Sanford, Elias B.; A History of Connecticut; Pub. The S. S. Scrantom Company, Hartford, 1922.
- John Davenport was born in the city of Coventry, England, in the year 1597. He graduated at the University of Oxford, and entered on the active duties of the ministry when but nineteen years of age. In the year 1631 he was summoned before Bishop Laud. Having decided to cast in his lot with the non-conformists, he crossed over to Holland, where, for a time, he was assistant minister of an English church at Amsterdam. He had long been interested in the emigration to New England, and he finally decided to come to the New World. With a number of influential and tried friends he set sail in the ship “Hector,” and arrived at Boston on the 26th of June, 1637. Mr. Davenport was an earnest preacher and ripe scholar. He was known among the Indians about New Haven as “So big study man.” ↩
- This barn, it is said, belonged to Robert Newman, a prominent founder of the colony. Dr. Bacon (Hist. Disc. 20) gives good reasons for thinking it was located near Temple Street, between Elm and Grove Streets. ↩
- “The restricted franchise, and the churchly aristocracy of New Haven, concealed a levelling principle. As the will of an English sovereign can transform the meanest subject into a peer of the realm, so the lowliest dweller in the cellars at Quinnipiac could, by admission to church membership, become a ruler of the State. The day-laborer, the possessor of the good name which is more valuable than fine gold, might be a free burgess; while his neighbor, dwelling in one of the ‘stately houses,’ and writing ‘Mr.’ before his name, might be forbidden to cast a vote. That a handful of exiles, gathered in a barn, could of their own free motion, without a bishop or a royal sanction, form a Church of God; that the same men, with no charter but their own consent and that of their fellowmen, could organize a self-governing Slate, – these were the novel and startling ideas through which our modern political philosophy has mainly developed. In the light of these principles, Winthrop and Endicott, Hooker and Roger Williams, Davenport and Eaton, stand forth together as apostles of our liberty.” – Livermore’s The Republic of New Haven, p. 25. ↩
- John Haynes held the position of governor of Massachusetts in 1635. He was one of the most influential and able men among the pioneers of Connecticut. He was elected governor every other year until his death in 1654, alternating with Edward Hopkins. ↩
- Roger Ludlow came from the west of England with the Rev. John Warham and his com pany. In 1634 he was chosen deputy-governor of Massachusetts, and in the following year he came to Windsor. He was a man of ripe legal attainments, and rendered Mr. Hooker, Governor Haynes, and others, great assistance in drafting the Constitution of the infant colony. After his removal to Fairfield, he was requested to revise and prepare a body of laws for the colony. He finished this work in 1649, and the code was established by the assembly during that year. After leaving Fairfield he returned to England, but the time and place of his death are unknown. ↩