May 31: Thomas Hooker Speaks on Free Government

 

To many students of Connecticut history and colonial America, Thomas Hooker is considered the “founding father” of Connecticut.  A Puritan minister who journeyed from England to Holland to Massachusetts in search of a place where he could preach his message of reformed Christianity free from persecution, Hooker served with distinction as the first established minister of Cambridge, Massachusetts for two years.  Then, after enduring sustained theological disagreements with John Cotton and other Bostonian ministers, Hooker and his congregants decided to head southwest in the spring of 1636 to form a new parish in what would become the new settlement of Hartford.

In addition to founding the Connecticut colony, Hooker had a reputation as one of the most moving and eloquent speakers of his day. His ideas concerning suffrage and government were radically democratic, even by Puritan standards.  The theological disagreements he had with the Puritans of Boston revolved around universal Christian suffrage — Hooker’s belief that voting rights should be extended to all Christian parishioners, instead of bring restricted to full-fledged church members (who made up a much smaller percentage of the community).  And on May 31, 1638, Hooker delivered his most famous sermon on authority and government in Hartford, declaring “The foundation of authority is laid firstly in the free consent of the people.”

In the first half of the 17th century, in a world dominated by monarchs and oligarchs where most ordinary people had little to no say in their governments, Hooker’s statement was truly revolutionary.  Hooker’s remarks were memorable enough to survive via handwritten notes taken by Henry Wolcott Jr., who was in attendance the day Hooker preached his most famous sermon.  Nor did his speech fall on deaf ears: six months later, in January 1639, Connecticut voters ratified the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first known written constitution to form a basis of government.  150 years later, historian John Fiske praised the Fundamental Orders as “mark[ing] the beginnings of American democracy, of which Thomas Hooker deserves more than any other man to be called the father.”  The seeds were sown for one of America’s earliest political revolutions on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Diana McCain, “The Free Consent of the People: Thomas Hooker and the Fundamental Orders,” connecticuthistory.org

Nancy Finlay, “Thomas Hooker: Connecticut’s Founding Father,” connecticuthistory.org

Walter W. Woodward, “What a Puritan, and Why Didn’t They Stay in Massachusetts?Connecticut Explored