It is fitting that once a year we pause to remember important events in our nation’s history. It is also fitting that at least once in a while we pause to remember important events in our state’s history. Now is such a while.
In 1662 — 350 years ago this spring — the King of England, Charles II, granted Connecticut a charter. That grant put the royal imprimatur on the form of government, with very minor alterations, that the Puritan colonists, led by Rev. Thomas Hooker and attorney Roger Ludlow, had created for themselves in 1639 in the Fundamental Orders without an imprimatur from anyone else.
It is not at all clear that Connecticut’s experiment in self-rule would have long survived without the royal imprimatur. The Puritans were no friends of Charles II’s father, Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649. Indeed, the Governor of Connecticut when Charles II was enthroned in 1660, John Winthrop (the son of Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts), had a particular reason to worry, because his father-in-law was one of the judges who signed the death warrant for Charles I. Not only that, three other such judges had fled to the nearby colony of New Haven.
So John Winthrop, taking a deep breath, sailed to England to seek a charter. Luckily, Winthrop was the Benjamin Franklin of the 17th century — a renowned scientist from the boondocks who had friends in high places, a natural conversationalist who got along with everyone, and (unlike Franklin) a face that one might mistake for the king’s brother.
Winthrop’s goal was to ensure that Connecticut would be left alone to operate its government as it wished. The King’s goal apparently was to consolidate all of New England into one dominion more easily under control of London, a goal that in fact would be accomplished too late under his brother James II’s reign in late 1687, just in time for the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, which swept away both James II and the Dominion of New England.
Charles II must have thought that giving Connecticut the royal imprimatur over areas it did not then govern, primarily New Haven, was a step in the direction of creating the Dominion of New England. But Winthrop had other ideas. With the Charter in hand, Connecticut indeed quickly convinced New Haven Colony to join it. The Charter also gave Connecticut control over Eastern Long Island. Connecticut traded this land with New York to get control over land contiguous to Connecticut in what is now lower Fairfield County. But having consolidated its territory under the Charter, Connecticut throughout the rest of the Colonial era considered the Charter its charter of freedom, not a step toward the Dominion of New England.
When James II’s emissary, Edmund Andros, sailed into Hartford on Halloween 1687 and demanded the Charter back, the colonists hid it and stonily tolerated the Dominion of New England until the spring of 1689, when the colonists met and reinstated every single living official that had been in office and every single statute that had been on the books on Oct. 31, 1687. There was never another interruption in Connecticut’s self-rule.
The Charter was such a symbol of Connecticut’s independence in the 18th century that, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, Connecticut, unlike all of the other colonies except Rhode Island, saw no need to write a new constitution. Connecticut already had a constitution: a combination of the Fundamental Orders that they wrote themselves and the royal imprimatur on what they wrote. That royal imprimatur — that symbol of our independence before independence — is why we citizens of Connecticut should pause to remember the 350th anniversary of the Charter of 1662. •