The Fundamental Orders were adopted by the Connecticut council on January 14, 1639. The orders describe the government set up by the Connecticut River towns, setting its structure and powers. It is the first written Constitution that created a government, and earned Connecticut its nickname of The Constitution State.
In 1637, the towns of Hartford, Weathersfield, and Windsor had started a collective government or commonwealth in order to fight the Pequot War. In the spring of 1638, Reverend Thomas Hooker challenged the General Court to set down and fix the principles of that government. It was his view that "the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people".
Each town had elected its magistrates and operate a court. Connecticut was very much a common law creature, in that court decisions were viewed as creating precedent, and were documented in Court Orders. The council in turn was called the General Court, and they viewed the Fundamental Orders as a more permanent document. Roger Ludlow of Windsor, who had studied law at the Balliol College, Oxford, drafted the first document and worked in the General Court through discussion and revision.
The New Haven Colony was still a separate government, and they saw themselves as being in competition with the Connecticut River towns. They competed in trade, in efforts to attract new colonists and investment, and now in openness of government. They adopted their own, similar, Fundamental Orders on June 4, 1639.
The Fundamental Orders is a short document, but contains some principles that were later applied in creating the United States governments. Government is based in the rights of an individual, and the orders spell out some of those rights as well as how they are ensured by the government. It provides that all free men share in electing their magistrates, and uses secret, paper ballots. It states the powers of the government, and some limits within which that power is exercised.
In one sense, the Fundamental Orders were replaced by a Royal Charter in 1662. But the major outline of the charter was written in Connecticut and embodies the Orders rights and mechanics. It was carried to England by Governor Winthrop and basically approved by King Charles. The colonists generally viewed the charter as a continuation and surety for the Fundamental Orders.
Today, the individual rights in the Orders, with others added over the years, are still included as a Declaration of Rights in the first article of the current Connecticut Constitution adopted in 1965.
- Text of the Fundamental Orders (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/order.htm)
- Text of New Haven's Fundamental Orders (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/ct01.htm)
- Connecticut State's web site with an overview (http://www.sots.state.ct.us/RegisterManual/SectionI/ctconstit.htm)
- Text of the Charter of 1662 (http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/states/ct03.htm)