October 12: Amidst Cries of “Foul Play,” Connecticut’s 1st Written Constitution Goes Into Effect

 

Today in 1818, Gov. Oliver Wolcott issued a Proclamation declaring the new state Constitution approved and ratified, and henceforth “the supreme law of the State.” The proclamation followed a state-wide referendum exactly one week before, on October 5th, that had seen the proposed revision of government win approval by only 1,554 votes. The 13,918 votes for ratification represented just under 53% of the 26,282 total votes cast, a decidedly slim endorsement for such a profound change in government. Clearly, many Connecticans were not pleased to see it take effect. Some loudly proclaimed that, as far as they were concerned, passage of the new constitution had been unfairly and illegally engineered.

Among the radical changes the new Constitution brought to the Land of Steady Habits were these: it abolished the state religion; it created a state Senate and independent judiciary; it gave the governor more power; and, it let all adult white men vote.

Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Governor of Connecticut (1817 – 1827) and president of the 1818 state constitutional convention

Opponents of the Constitution – members of the state’s venerable “Standing Order” who had benefited for generations from government based on the Royal Charter of 1662 – were quick to underscore just how slim the “for” majority was, and to suggest that it had been obtained by political subterfuge. They claimed, for example, that the three weeks allowed for the proposed constitution to be printed and distributed for public consideration had been absurdly short, resulting in only a small proportion of the state’s electorate even seeing the complex document before having to vote on it. They further charged that in many places – particularly New Haven, but also Fairfield, Newtown, and Middletown – the voting process had been engineered to stifle opposition to the constitution. By insuring the ratification vote preceded any debate on the constitution’s provisions, they said, the pro-constitution party had left its opponents voiceless and unable to make the case against ratification.

Such complaints, though loudly raised and widely distributed in the press, availed the old order nothing. The new Constitution went into effect, and the General Assembly spent the 1818 session revising existing laws to make them conform to the new system. Then, as now, what one group saw as a triumph of democracy, another derided as political chicanery. For better or worse, though, the first state constitution written and ratified by the people themselves (well, a slight majority of them) became the law of the land, as the state’s venerable Standing Order grudgingly took a seat, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Commemorating the Constitution of 1818,” Connecticut Explored

Constitution of 1818” Connecticut State Archives