Home Connecticut The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut: Founding Document by a Founding Father

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut: Founding Document by a Founding Father

First constitution? First declaration of independence?

by
8 comments

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).

fundamental-orders

The Signing of the Fundamental Orders of the Constitution, 1638-39, by Albert Herter

Some view it as the first written constitution. Others think of it as the first declaration of independence.

Fundamental Orders

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.

thomas-hooker

Thomas Hooker and his people

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.

Thomas Welles

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:


This story was updated in 2024.

8 comments

Peter Stoddard October 5, 2015 - 7:16 pm

“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.

The Almanac, Indispensable Day Planner for the Busy Colonist - New England Historical Society December 31, 2015 - 8:20 am

[…] On May 10, 1662, Gov. John Winthrop of Connecticut recorded the event that confirmed the colony's self-government under its fundamental orders: […]

Peter Stoddard January 16, 2016 - 9:52 pm
A Brief History of Town Meeting, From Election Cake to Lemon Meringue Pie - New England Historical Society March 8, 2016 - 9:17 am

[…] Stone, who came over with Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, described the Congregational church government as "a speaking Aristocracy in the […]

The 6 Oldest Public High Schools in New England - New England Historical Society November 5, 2016 - 6:58 am

[…] as Thomas Hooker’s Latin School in 1638, Hartford Public High School is the second oldest public high school in the […]

Judith July 28, 2017 - 8:58 am

Who signed the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut? Free men, it says, but what were their names?

Six Indian Trails That Turned Into Scenic Highways and Byways - New England Historical Society September 23, 2017 - 9:01 am

[…] 1636, the Rev. Thomas Hooker took the Old Connecticut Path with 100 followers and 160 cattle. It took them two weeks to reach […]

How Hartford’s Ancient Burying Ground Was Saved by the Gold Street Lady - New England Historical Society April 6, 2018 - 8:38 am

[…] in the Ancient Burying Ground are five early Connecticut governors; Hartford founders Thomas Hooker and Samuel Stone; Jeremiah Wadsworth, commissary general of the Continental Army; and Daniel […]

Comments are closed.