Deteriorating relations between England and the American colonies noticeably worsened in the 1763-1773 decade, with serious dissension arising over the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act. The Boston Tea Party in 1773, a dramatic defiance of British authority by the radicals in Boston, led directly to the passage by parliament in 1774 of the Coercive or Intolerable Acts which gave England almost total control of the government and trade of Massachusetts. Connecticut’s leaders felt deep sympathy for Massachusetts, a feeling strengthened by the British closing of the port of Boston, where many Connecticut merchants regularly traded.
Numerous Connecticut towns, such as Farmington and Norwich, established committees of correspondence and passed resolutions denouncing British actions. In October 1774 Mansfield passed the “Mansfield Declaration of Independence,” a vigorous affirmation of the need to retain the natural and constitutional rights of the colonists but falling far short of a true declaration of independence. The assembly enacted stringent anti-Tory laws, and ardent Loyalists such as the Reverend Samuel Peters (1735-1826) of Hebron were harassed and persecuted, causing some, including Peters, to flee to areas under the control of British troops.
For several decades the eastern part of Connecticut had been poorer and more radical than western Connecticut. By late 1774, however, many western towns such as Norfolk, Stratford, and Greenwich had passed resolutions supporting the American cause. Known Loyalists in towns like Newtown and Ridgefield found themselves under intense surveillance by Whigs from nearby towns.
When fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, some 3,600 Connecticut militiamen rushed to the Boston area. A special session of the General Assembly, convening on April 26, enacted an embargo on food exports and ordered one-fourth of the militia to be ready for active militia service. Further preparedness measures were passed at the regular May session. That same month many Connecticut men, including Benedict Arnold (1740/41-1801), participated in the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga to secure some much-needed cannon. In June Connecticut soldiers fought well under Israel Putnam (1717/18-1790) at the bloody battle of Bunker Hill.
In mid-June the assembly adopted a resolution authorizing Connecticut’s delegates to the Continental Congress “to propose to that respectable body, to declare the United American Colonies Free and Independent States, absolved from all allegiance to the King of Great Britain.” The Declaration of Independence was signed by four Connecticut leaders-Samuel Huntington (1731-1796), Roger Sherman (1721-1793), William Williams (1730/31-1811), and Oliver Wolcott, Sr., (1726-1797).
For Further Reading: Zeichner, Oscar. Connecticut’s Years of Controversy, 1750-1776. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1949.
Roth, David M. and Meyer, Freeman. From Revolution to Constitution. Connecticut 1763-1818. Chester, Connecticut, 1975. See especially pp. 1-41.
Provisions – State of the Revolution
Realizing the pressing need for assuring ample provisions for Connecticut militiamen on active duty, the assembly met in special session one week after Lexington and Concord and enacted an embargo on the export of such necessities as corn, rye, beef. Pork, live cattle, and bread flour. Later the assembly and the Council of Safety were authorized to grant permits to petitioners who had legitimate reasons to export embargoed items.
Joseph Trumbull (1736/37-1778), eldest son of the governor, was chosen commissary general. with nine commissaries to assist him, and was sent to Cambridge to oversee supplying Connecticut troops. He performed so effectively that in July 1775 the Continental Congress appointed him commissary general for the Continental army, a position in which he excelled. At the outbreak of war probably no Connecticut leaders foresaw that the state would become a leading source of provisions for the American army. Unlike many states which at times were overrun by the British army, Connecticut was free from British occupation and major battles except for the raids on Danbury and a few coastal towns. Thus, the farmers could concentrate on raising food for the army. Based on its assessed valuation, each town was allotted a fixed quota of supplies. Aided by efficient commissaries. such as Jeremiah Wadsworth (1743-1804), Henry Champion (1723/24-1797), and Elijah Hubbard (1745-1808). Connecticut provided large quantities of foodstuffs, particularly beef and pork.
Connecticut’s pre-eminent position as a supply state was exemplified by General Washington’s frequent appeals to Governor Trumbull (1710-1785) for help with provisions. During the bitter winter at Valley Forge, Washington made a desperate plea to Connecticut for cattle to prevent dissolution of the army. Governor Trumbull and the Council of Safety ordered the immediate purchase of cattle and they were driven to Valley Forge. Arriving just in time to save the army, the first herd was devoured in five days by the ravenous soldiers.
After chronic mismanagement by Joseph Trumbull’s successor. Congress in 1778 appointed Jeremiah Wadsworth commissary general of purchases, a position he held with distinction until resigning in December 1779. In 1780 he and John Carter of Newport became agents to supply the French army, an effort which brought prosperity to many Connecticut citizens.
Despite Connecticut’s successes, there were serious supply problems. Major reasons included slow payment to the farmers, congressional slowness in making requests, rivalry between state and Continental commissaries, severe depreciation of money, and illicit trade. The illegal trade centered on Long Island Sound and Fairfield County, with British goods bought in New York City and supplies for the British army sent to New York City. Although General Washington, Governor Trumbull, and other Patriot leaders were infuriated by it and severe laws prohibiting it were enacted, such trade persisted until the end of the war.
For the war as a whole, Connecticut’s total contribution of supplies greatly surpassed what could be expected from a state of such small size and population and earned it the title of “the Provisions State.”
For Further Reading:
Destler. Chester M. Connecticut: The Provisions State. Chester, Connecticut, 1973.
The British Attack on Danbury
During the British occupation of New York City from 1776 to 1783, Connecticut was always vulnerable to attack by the British army and navy. In 1777 mounting criticism of General William Howe for failure to defeat the Americans and end the war made him anxious to achieve a victory, even if only a small one. His troops in New York, moreover. were suffering from lack of food, fuel, and supplies in general. An attack on Danbury with its supply depot would deprive the Americans of desperately-needed stores and help the local Loyalists. It was hoped, too, that the raid would assist General Burgoyne who would be driving from Canada toward Albany. General Washington, moreover, by concentrating his troops in New Jersey, had left Connecticut wide open to attack.
Major General William Tryon (1729-1788), former royal governor of North Carolina and New York, was convinced that the majority of Connecticut people really preferred British rule. Tryon. ordered by Howe to attack Danbury, landed his force of about 1,800 men at the mouth of the Saugatuck River late on April 25, 1777, and marched almost unopposed to Danbury.
Tryon’s troops arrived in Danbury late on April 26 and burned about twenty homes as well as various storehouses, barns, and vast quantities of food and clothing. Most early accounts called the destruction wanton. but it seems in fact to have been highly selective, with only about five per cent of the 400 Danbury homes burned.
Meanwhile, General Benedict Arnold (1740/41-1801) rushed to Redding where he jointed generals David Wooster (1710/11-1777) and Gold Selleck Silliman (17321790) on April 27. They marched their troops to nearby Bethel where they divided their forces. Arnold and Silliman took about 400 men to Ridgefield, while Wooster, with about 200, harassed the rear of the retreating British, who, having heard of the sizable forces in the area, had decided to leave. As they retreated towards Ridgefield, Wooster attacked their rear, taking many prisoners. Wooster. however, was mortally wounded himself. In Ridgefield the British, with a large superiority in numbers, outflanked Arnold’s’s troops, forcing them back. Although Arnold had his horse shot under him, he made a miraculous escape. More militia joined the American forces the next day, making the retreat to the coast a British nightmare. British casualties totaled about 200; American, about 60. Except for the destruction of supplies, the results of the British raid were minor. In May 1778 the assembly voted to compensate the inhabitants of Danbury and Ridgefield for one-third of their losses.
For Further Reading:
McDevitt, Robert F. Connecticut Attacked: A British Viewpoint, Tryon’s Raid on Danbury. Chester, Connecticut, 1974.
Bailey, James M. History of Danbury. 1684-1896. New York, 1896. See especially pp. 60-86.
Connecticut Provides Cannon
When the American Revolution broke out, cannon were desperately needed by the Americans. Armies required cannon to win battles and forts needed them to hold out against an enemy equipped with them. In the intercolonial wars against the French and Indians, England had provided the needed cannon.
Probably Connecticut’s most important war industry was the Salisbury iron and cannon foundry, which had been developed in northwestern Connecticut well before the Revolution and which became the leading cannon-making center of New England during the war. In 1731 Daniel Bissell (1694-1770) discovered the first large, high-grade ‘ton ore deposits at a place in Salisbury, later known as Ore Hill. Early in 1776 the Council of Safety sent Jedediah Elderkin (1717/18-1793) to survey the potential for cannon making there. His report was so optimistic that the council assumed control of the property from its owner, Richard Smith, a suspected Loyalist who had gone to England. Chosen to supervise the operation were two highly-experienced men-Colonel Joshua Porter (1730-1825) as overseer and Samuel Forbes (1729-1827) as iron-master. They moved effectively to obtain a steady flow of iron ore, limestone, lead, and charcoal. Governor Trumbull (1710-1785), realizing the critical need for cannon, kept a special express rider almost constantly engaged on the Lebanon-Salisbury route.
In 1776 Salisbury cannon were used in Connecticut’s coastal forts, were loaned to New York, and mounted on a few ships. Late in 1776 Congress requested Salisbury cannon for Continental vessels and forts in northern New York. In January 1777 the Council of Safety voted to supply General Schuyler’s army with thirty-nine cannon of assorted sizes and necessary shot. To speed production the assembly exempted fifty workers from military service. Requests poured in for cannon from Congress and the state in such large numbers that the governor and council had a difficult task allocating the available supply.
Nathaniel Shaw, Jr., (1735-1782) of New London, as a state agent, outfitted many vessels, both state and privately-owned, as well as privateers. One of his own privateers, the sloop Revenge, mounting ten Salisbury cannon, captured nineteen prizes. The Salisbury furnaces made cannon of many sizes, ranging from small swivels to the eighteen-pounders. They had the reputation for being expensive but very good. During the war Salisbury furnaces cast over 800 cannon, as well as producing shot, grapeshot, hand grenades, and pots and pans. Salisbury’s contribution to winning the war was highly significant. Without its cannon, Connecticut’s coastal towns would have been almost defenseless and its milita and navy would have had far fewer cannon.
For Further Reading:
Middlebrook, Louis F. Salisbury Connecticut Cannon, American Revolution. Salem, Massachusetts, 1935.
Rome, Adam W. Connecticut’s Cannon: The Salisbury Furnace in the American Revolution. Hartford, 1977.
A Navy and Privateers Fight the British
With Connecticut’s strong seafaring tradition it is not surprising that the General Assembly in early July 1775 voted to equip and arm two vessels to patrol the Connecticut seacoast. Before the Revolution ended, thirteen vessels saw service in this navy. Several of these armed ships inflicted severe losses on the British.
The Oliver Cromwell, the state’s largest full-rigged ship, was built at Essex in 1776-1777 by Uriah Hayden (1732-1808). Under Captain Seth Harding (1734-1814) she enjoyed a successful if brief service, capturing nine British vessels before finally being captured in June 1779 by three British vessels after a fierce battle.
The most successful state vessel, the Defence, on her first combat voyage in June 1776 under Captain Seth Harding, captured three British transports carrying 330 officers and men. Later under Captain Samuel Smedley (1753-1812) she cruised in the Atlantic from Newfoundland to the Caribbean, capturing thirteen British vessels before being shipwrecked near New London in March 1779. Altogether, the state fleet took over forty British prizes, many with valuable cargoes; protected Connecticut’s coast; and reduced illicit trade.
Connecticut’s most unusual vessel was a tiny submarine often called “Bushnell’s (American) Turtle.” Her designer, David Bushnell (1740-1824) of Saybrook, created a man-propelled submarine which looked like the upper shell of two turtles fastened together. She performed well in trials but failed against British warships.
With the powerful British navy largely preventing oceanic trade, hundreds of Connecticut ships lay idle. Some shipowners, therefore, decided to obtain a license for privateering. This involved arming an ordinary merchantman and trying to capture English trading vessels. The state took one-half the net proceeds of a prize, with the owner(s), captain, and crew sharing the other half. Connecticut sent out between 200 and 300 privateers, with New London the leading base. A particularly successful privateer was the American Revenue, owned by Nathaniel Shaw and Company of New London, which captured thirteen prizes between 1777 and 1779 before being captured. In 1781 the brig Minerva brought into New London the Hannah with a cargo worth £80,000. the largest prize of the war. Arnold’s attack on New London in September 1781 was designed partly to destroy privateers in the harbor. During the war Connecticut’s privateers took nearly 500 English vessels and greatly interfered with British operations along the Atlantic coast.
For Further Reading Middlebrook, Louis F. History of Maritime Connecticut During the American Revolution, 1775-1783. Salem, Massachusetts, 1925.
British Raid on New London and Groton
The final British attack on Connecticut was the most perfidious and brutal of the war. Sir Henry Clinton. British commander-in-chief, apparently launched the expedition to prevent part of the northern Franco-American forces from going against Lord Cornwallis in Virginia. He also wanted to punish New London because its privateers were taking a high toll of British merchantmen. Benedict Arnold (1740/41-1801), who was born in nearby Norwich and knew the area intimately, was given overall command with about 1,700 men.
On September 6, 1781, the British fleet entered New London harbor, experiencing little opposition. In New London itself Arnold’s forces encountered only token resistance and were able to destroy much shipping and large quantities of goods recently seized by privateers. Warehouses, shops, and some homes were set afire, and an unfortunate shift in the wind spread the conflagration, burning much of downtown New London, destroying about 140 buildings.
Across the Thames River in Groton on top of a high hill overlooking the harbor stood Fort Griswold, which about 800 veteran British troops under Colonel Edmund Eyre set out to capture. To defend it, Colonel William Ledyard (1738-1781) had only about 150 militiamen. When Ledyard rejected a surrender demand, the British attacked furiously. The Americans, using their cannon and small arms effectively, inflicted heavy casualties, approximately 40 killed and 100 wounded, while suffering only light casualties themselves.
Despite the resolute defense. British troops finally broke into the fort. Realizing that further resistance was futile, Ledyard ordered his men to surrender. A British officer shouted: “Who commands this garrison?” Ledyard promptly tendered his sword, replying, “I did, sir, but you do now.” The sword was taken and instantly plunged through his body. The roused British soldiers then butchered about eighty men from the garrison, before the officers finally halted the carnage. Determined to blow up the powder magazine, the British placed some of the American wounded in a wagon which got out of control on a hill, plunged downward into a tree, and killed several prisoners.
From the British viewpoint, the attack had proven to be an expensive triumph-48 killed and 145 wounded. While great damage had been wreaked on the Americans, with ninety-seven families left homeless, many of the vessels in the harbor were able to escape up the Thames River. For Connecticut people, the bitterness over the loss of life, the fire, and the defeat was greatly accentuated by having their traitor-son Arnold lead the expedition. Years later, in 1793, those who had their homes burned were finally compensated by grants of land in a part of the Western Reserve, appropriately named the Firelands.
For Further Reading
Harris, William E. The Battle ofGroton Heights …. rev. Charles Allyn. New London, Connecticut, 1882.
Caulkins, Frances M. History of New London, Connecticut. New London, 1895.
Ratifying the Federal Consitiution
In the mid-1780s growing dissatisfaction with the weak Articles of Confederation resulted in a call for a convention at Philadelphia in 1787. Roger Sherman (1721-1793), Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807), and William Samuel Johnson (1727-1819), Connecticut’s skillful and astute delegates, helped to engineer the “Connecticut Compromise,” which provided for equal representation in the Senate and representation according to population in the House of Representatives.
The proposed constitution, printed in the newspapers, was the immediate focus of discussions. The most effective literature in favor of the constitution was a newspaper series written by “A LANDHOLDER,” actually Ellsworth, who argued that the new constitution was vital if the United States were to be strong and prosperous.
In October 1787 the assembly voted to have a special convention, with delegates elected by each town, to decide the issue of ratification. The delegates, convening at Hartford on January 3, 1788, elected former governor Matthew Griswold (1714-1799) president. The proceedings were open to the public and newspapers printed lengthy accounts of the debates. Ellsworth opened the debate with a powerful speech, declaring: “We must unite, in order to preserve peace among ourselves.” Johnson followed with a somber description of the current situation: “We have got to the very brink of ruin; we must turn back, and adopt a new system.”
The anti-Federalists, opposing the proposed constitution for giving the central government far too much power, were led by General James Wadsworth (1730-1817). He particularly denounced the proposed duties on imports and the great military and finacial powers which the Constitution bestowed on the central government.
After much intense debate, on January 9 the major question of ratification was moved and seconded. Governor Samuel Huntington (1731-1796), Lieutenant-Governor Oliver Wolcott. Sr. (1726-1797), and Chief Judge of the Superior Court Richard Law (1732/33-1806) each delivered eloquent pleas for ratification, after which the fateful vote was taken-128 in favor and only 40 opposed. Connecticut, the fifth state to approve the Federal Constitution, became one of the most Federalist of all the states.
For Further Reading
Labaree, Leonard W., ed. Public Records of the State of Connecticut. Hartford, 1945. See especially volume 6, pp. 548-573. Steiner, Bernard C. Connecticut’s Ratification of the Federal Constitution, American Antiquarian Society Proceedings 25 (April 1915): 70-127.
The Hartford Convention
The War of 1812, described by the editor of the Courant as one in which the United States had everything to lose and nothing to gain, was very unpopular in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Dissatisfaction in Massachusetts, laboring under severe trade restrictions, was so intense by 1814 that leading Massachusetts Federalists called for a meeting of delegates from all New England states to discuss grievances, means of common defense, and possible changes in the Federal Constitution.
When the delegates assembled in the Old State House in Hartford “to confer,” not secede and form a political confederation, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had official delegates, while Vermont and New Hampshire had unofficial representatives. Connecticut’s delegation, chosen by the assembly, consisted of seven well-known Federalists: Lieutenant Governor Chauncey Goodrich (1759-1815): Calvin Goddard (1768-1842); James Hillhouse (1754-1832); Roger Sherman, (1773-1844), nephew of the signer; Nathaniel Smith (1762-1822); Zephaniah Swift (1759-1823); and former governor John Treadwell (1745-1823). Meeting in secret sessions from December 15, 1814, to January 5, 1815, the convention issued a report which vigorously denounced many of the Madison administration’s policies and recommended seven amendments to the Constitution, including requiring a two-thirds vote of Congress to declare war or admit anew state, limiting the president to one term, apportioning taxes and representatives according to population, and prohibiting any state from providing two successive presidents.
The convention was confident that its proposals would strike fear into the hearts of Madisonians. However, news of Jackson’s great victory at New Orleans, followed quickly by a peace treaty, completely overshadowed everything else. The Hartford Convention soon became an object of ridicule and disgrace. The general public wanted to think the worst-that it was a treasonable body. Even publication a few years later of the hitherto secret proceedings failed to silence charges of treason. Actually, the convention mirrored only strong grievances and political opposition, not secession or disloyalty.
Many years later a visitor from the South, walking into the Old State House, asked to see the room where the Hartford Convention met. It was the room used as the state Senate chamber and above the president’s chair hung Gilbert Stuart’s brightly colored portrait of Washington. Looking at the painting, he asked whether Washington hung there during the convention. “Certainly,” replied the guide. “Well,” said the southerner, looking at it again, “I’ll be damned if he’s got the blush off yet.”
For Further Reading:
Dwight, Theodore. History of the Hartford Convention. New York, 1833.
Baldwin, Simeon E. “The Hartford Convention,” New Haven Historical Society Papers 9 (1918): 1-28.
The Constitution of 1818
Despite a fundamental change in the Federal government in 1789, politics in Connecticut continued on a conservative course. Although most states adopted a new constitution during the Revolution, the state remained happily under its Charter of 1662, only removing references to the King. Sentiment in the 1790s was so strongly Federalist that in practice there was a one-party system dominated by the Standing Order. Thomas Jefferson’s candidacy in 1800 encouraged the Jeffersonian Republicans to offer substantial opposition and to present a slate of candidates. Although they campaigned for disestablishment of the Congregational church, a new constitution, and election of congressmen by districts rather than at large, the Federalists still won by a landslide. Republican strength grew slowly from 1800 to 1815, but the Federalists consistently won the governorship and the assembly.
In February 1816 a more serious challenge to the Federalists appeared when Republicans and Episcopalians met at New Haven. Although most Episcopalians had supported the Federalists, they became gradually alienated by the policies of the Standing Order. The participants shrewdly chose Oliver Wolcott, Jr., (1760-1833) as their candidate for governor. Son and grandson of governors, a Yale graduate, Federalist, banker, merchant, and manufacturer, he offered solid respectability and outstanding achievement. For lieutenant governor they nominated Judge Jonathan Ingersoll (1747-1823), a popular and wealthy New Haven lawyer. Calling themselves the Toleration Party, they advocated disestablishment of the Congregational church and a new constitution. Calling on voters to support the holy institutions of their forefathers, the Federalists, under Governor John Cotton Smith (1765-1845), won by a small plurality. The next year brought a narrow victory for Wolcott. signifying a triumph of new men and new principles.
In 1818 the Republicans won a landslide victory, capturing both houses of the assembly and the governorship. The legislature immediately called for a constitutional convention, which produced a constitution with important provisions: disestablishment of the church with all sects supported voluntarily; veto power given the governor; separation of powers into three departments-executive, legislative, and judicial; new election laws and revised suffrage requirements; reorganization of the court system; annual elections and legislative sessions; salaries of elected officials fixed by statute; and amendments decided by a two-thirds vote of both houses and approval by the voters. The Constitution of 1818 won decisively in the assembly and in a popular referendum triumphed 13,918 to 12,364. This success signified a victory of nationalism over localism and of democratic principles over aristocratic ones. At last Connecticut had joined the nineteenth century.
For Further Reading: Purcell, Richard 1. Connecticut in Transition: 1775-1818. Middletown, Connecticut, 1963. See especially pp. 146-264.
Greene, M. Louise. The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut. Boston, 1905. See especially pp. 420-496.