Connecticut was founded and settled between 1635 and 1636 by Congregationalists who were dissatisfied with the Puritan government of the Massachusetts colony. These Congregationalists established the towns of Windsor, Hartford, and Wethersfield along the Connecticut River, and held an assembly in 1638 to formalize the relationship between the three towns and establish a legal system. Roger Ludlow, the leader of the assembly, drafted the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which became the basis of the government of the colony and later the State of Connecticut.
Elements of the Fundamental Orders, such as government by the consent of the governed and voting rights and procedures, were unique for their time and can be seen as the basis for the US Constitution adopted by the newly independent American colonies 150 years later. The religious beliefs of the Congregationalist groups who separated themselves from Massachusetts play a prominent role in the formulation of the Fundamental Orders. Also referred to as Separatists or Independents, their core philosophy is autonomous governance, in which each congregation runs its own affairs.
Phrases from the preamble to the Fundamental Orders, such as “the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent Government established according to God” underscore the belief that in establishing their government these congregations are merely fulfilling their duty to God. Also, unlike other governing documents of its day, the Fundamental Orders do not contain any reference to the British Crown, or any other power or government outside of Connecticut, further illustrating their belief in their own sovereignty and their capacity for self-governance.
Also included in the preamble is the idea of separation of church and state, stated as follows: “to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess” and “as also in our civil affairs to be guided and governed according to such Laws, Rules, Orders and Decrees as shall be made, ordered, and decreed as followeth”. The Fundamental Orders go into great detail outlining the manner in which the representative government will be chosen, and what powers it will have.
The process of electing local representatives was handled at the town level, with each town nominating four or more deputies, and these deputies held General Court twice a year, to elect six Magistrates and one Governor, who comprise the supreme power in the Commonwealth. While there was no separation of these powers until many years later, these governing bodies can be seen as a precursor to the legislative, judiciary, and executive branches of our current federal and state governments.
The deputies selected by popular vote in the various towns were sent to the General Court to represent the interests of their respective constituents, much like our modern Congress, with the number of deputies representing each town being proportionate to the population of that town. The Governor and Magistrates were nominated from within the body of deputies in General Court, comprising the body which would determine how laws presented to the court would be enforced, similar to the Supreme Court of today.
The Governor, in addition to acting as moderator of the court, had power to call special sessions of court and to impel deputies and other officers of the court to fulfill their duties, acting in an executive role like that of governors at the state level or the President at the federal level. In order to vote for, or be nominated for, any public position, a person had to be male, over 21, reside in the Commonwealth, own property, and swear an oath of fidelity.
In other words, one did not have to be of “noble birth”, or belong to a particular church or congregation in order to be a part of the governing process, the very limitations which cause them to flee England for America and later led to their separation from Massachusetts. Voting consisted of each person present writing the name of the person they wish to nominate on a paper ballot, and the ballots being tallied publicly, the persons with the greatest number of ballots were elected. This method of popular voting is nearly identical to the method in which members of the Senate and House of Representatives are elected.
The nomination and election of the six Magistrates and Governor was performed in General Court with candidates nominated from among those deputies elected to represent their towns in the General Court, following the same balloting model as the local elections. Presumably, the nominations made by the deputies would represent the will of their constituency. This procedure is not unlike the Electoral College outlined in Article II of the US Constitution, in which a group of electors is chosen to directly elect the President, with the number of electors being equal to the number of representatives in the Senate and
House of Representatives. In conclusion, the Fundamental Orders represented an approach to government that was novel for its time, and would serve as the basis for the first truly democratic republic in the world. While the philosophical basis for the American Revolution is largely taken from the writings of Enlightenment thinkers, the procedural basis is clearly based on, if not taken directly from, the small group of Separatists who wished to determine their own course, independent from the limiting principles of royal and religious authority, and which could only have happened in a land not already subject to such an authority.
We owe a great debt to Roger Ludlow, Rev. Thomas Hooker, and the other founders of Connecticut, who had the courage and tenacity to stand apart and establish themselves according to their principles. Fitting that Connecticut is nicknamed “The Constitution State”, as without the Fundamental Orders the Constitution may have been very different.
Great Neck, Publishing. “The Fundamental Orders Of Connecticut.” Fundamental Orders Of Connecticut (2009): 1-3. History Reference Center. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.