Free men from three Connecticut towns – Hartford, Windsor and Wethersfield – signed The Fundamental Orders on Jan. 14, 1638 (N.S. Jan. 24, 1639, explanation here).
Some view it as the first written constitution. Others think of it as the first declaration of independence.
The Fundamental Orders was a probably written by Roger Ludlow, a lawyer who had sailed to the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in 1630. He may have had help from former Massachusetts governor John Haynes, as well as Edward Hopkins and John Steel.
It’s considered extraordinary because nowhere did it mention a king or a sovereign. And nowhere did it refer to any power outside of Connecticut. It also spells out individual rights and provides that all free men elect their representatives using paper ballots. Finally, it states the powers of the government and the limits of that power.
Connecticut had been governing itself since Thomas Hooker led a band of Puritans away from Massachusetts in 1636. The Fundamental Orders gave men more voting rights than they had in Massachusetts and allowed more men to run for office. That was pretty much the reason Hooker and his followers had left Massachusetts.
Representatives from the three towns launched the Fundamental Orders the previous year, when they held a general court at Hartford. Hooker started the meeting with a sermon in which he said, ‘the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.’
The Fundamental Orders set the framework for Connecticut Colony’s governance from 1639 to 1662. They called for sessions of general courts every April and September, with six magistrates and a governor presiding. The Orders also had term limits, forbidding any man from serving as governor more than once every two years.
They ultimately gave the general courts all executive, legislative and judicial authority.
The Massachusetts Body of Liberties subsequently followed the Fundamental Orders two years later. The two documents laid the foundation for the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution.
We know little about that meeting of the General Court in the spring of 1638. The participants probably kept the proceedings quiet because they feared retaliation. The Fundamental Orders, however, came out of that meeting.
It is a short document, with 11 chapters and fewer than 2,000 words. (Full text here.) Thomas Welles, the colony’s secretary, transcribed it.
Welles was the only person in Connecticut’s history to serve as governor, deputy governor, treasurer and secretary. We don’t know much about him, either. Born in England, he joined Hooker at the spring meeting of the General Court. He then served in the various offices and died on Jan. 14, 1660 in Wethersfield.
With thousands of descendants, he was a founding father of America. They include a U.S. president, movie stars, religious leaders and captains of industry:
- Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian clergyman, temperance movement leader, and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
- Bob Bennett, former U.S. Senator.
- Bruce Dern, an Academy Award-nominated American film actor, and his sister, Laura Dern actress, film director and producer.
- Gerald R. Ford, U.S. president.
- Henry Wells, founder of American Express.
- Wilford Woodruff, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
- Gideon Wells, secretary of the U.S. Navy.
- Nancy Reagan, First Lady of the United States.
- Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize winning poet.
This story was updated in 2023.
“Sewell was the only person in Connecticut’s history to serve as governor, deputy governor, treasurer, and secretary.”
I believe you mean “Welles was the only person in Connecticut’s history to serve as governor, deputy governor, treasurer, and secretary.” Thomas Welles is my 9th great-grandfather.
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