Today in 1818, delegates to the state’s first ever Constitutional Convention gathered at the State House in Hartford for the first time, charged with the formidable task of restructuring Connecticut state government by creating the state’s first formally written constitution.
Writing a new constitution was no small task, given the social, cultural, and political upheaval Connecticut was going through at the time. The Industrial Revolution was upending Connecticut’s economy and residents were leaving in droves to find better opportunities in western lands. An increase in cultural and religious diversity put enormous pressure on the state to dis-establish itself from the Congregational Church. Bitter partisan bickering between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans had permeated every facet of Connecticut politics. All these made continuing to govern under the informal and largely unwritten terms of Connecticut’s 1662 Charter no longer possible.
In fact, it seemed like the only thing a plurality of Connecticans could agree upon is that 42 years after American independence, it was time for a change. The state had been governed by the same set of laws — and the same tightly-knit, elite political class known as the “Standing Order” — since the mid-17th century. Spurred by the democratic rhetoric that flourished during the American Revolution, a diverse coalition of political outsiders began agitating for change in how state government was structured. With the rapid collapse of the Federalist party following the War of 1812, and a sharp rise in Jeffersonian-style populism, this coalition gathered enough support to call for a statewide Constitutional Convention in 1818. On July 4 of that year, Connecticut voters in every township gathered to select a total of 195 delegates who would help usher in a new chapter in state government. After selecting Governor Oliver Wolcott Jr. to serve as president of the convention, the delegates then appointed a 24-member committee to draft a new written constitution.
Amid this mix of competing pressures and interest groups, the 24-member committee managed to deliver a complete draft of a new state constitution in only a week’s time, most of it written by Wolcott himself. Among the many significant changes proposed in the document were the disestablishment of the Congregational Church, the implementation of universal white male suffrage, a comprehensive list of unalienable individual rights, and the reorganization of state government into three distinct executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The delegates would spend the next few weeks debating and revising the draft before submitting a final version to a public referendum in October. A critical and important step was taken toward Connecticut’s first constitution that was both written and ratified by the people themselves, today in Connecticut history.
“Exploring the Legacy of Connecticut’s 1818 Constitution: Background and Links to Resources,” connecticuthistory.org
“Commemorating the Constitution of 1818,” Connecticut Explored