The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut was the first written constitution in the American colonies. In 1639, the three towns that comprised the Connecticut colony, Hartford, Windsor, and Wethersfield, formed a common government based on the federal principle. The form of government provided the basis for the expansion of the colony and eventually became the framework for Connecticut’s first state constitution, adopted in 1776 and lasting until 1818.
The Fundamental Orders is a constitution in the sense that it created a new people, laid out the political values of this people, established a new government, and defined its political institutions. The Fundamental Orders created a General Court that was composed of the three branches of government, a governor (the executive); twelve deputies—four from each town (the legislature); and six magistrates (the judiciary). The form was parliamentary in nature, empowering the deputies to elect the governor and the magistrates.
As noted, the Fundamental Orders embodied the federal principle. The towns maintained their own form of government and conducted elections for colonial deputies, who were initially apportioned on the basis of each town rather than by population. Thus, the towns (or constituent units) provided the basis for representation. The powers of the colonial government were specified in Article X (a precursor to the enumerated powers found in the U.S. Constitution). These powers included the ability to levy taxes, make laws for the common good, settle land disputes, and punish crimes. Article X also included a supremacy clause. Finally, the Orders provided for expansion, allowing new towns to be added to the compact.
Some other notable features of the Fundamental Orders include term limits for the governor, who was prohibited from serving two consecutive terms. More significantly, the government established was based on the principle of popular sovereignty, a concept not present in English common law, nor one that had yet been articulated in Liberal political theory.
Perry Miller, Errand in the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956); and Stephen L. Schechter, Roots of the Republic: American Founding Documents Interpreted (Madison, WI: Madison House, 1990).