Welcome to the 19th Century, Connecticut

April 19, 1817 – May 18, 1817

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I congratulate you, on the late Election in Connecticutt.”

Come again?

I admit that I’m always on the lookout for mention of Connecticut. Ever notice how we love to elevate the histories of our own state? If you’re from Massachusetts, you’re the seed bed of the American Revolution. If you’re from Rhode Island, you’re the beacon of religious freedom. If you’re from Connecticut, you pretty much bankrolled the Revolution AND the Civil War. If you’re from Maine, you’re, well, you’re from Maine. If you’re from New York, the world begins here and New England is a joke with delusions of grandeur. And, yes, I’m goading my Mainer friends: let’s hear a shout-out.

Back to Connecticut. JA brings up the Constitution State now and then, usually as a whipping boy in some snarky comment about aristocratic government and religious barbarism. I seem to remember a dig about the Blue Laws a few letters back. (Just search “blue laws,” and “Connecticut” in recent online news and you’ll figure it out. As of May 20, 2012, we can buy booze on Sunday.)

History lesson in 50 words or less: In their younger days, it was John Adams (Federalist) vs. Thomas Jefferson (Republican). In this letter, JA is referring to the election of Oliver Wolcott as governor of Connecticut. Wolcott is a (Jeffersonian) Republican and his victory is the first defeat of a Federalist governor in Connecticut history. One of the biggest issues in this election is religious freedom. Governor Wolcott will soon call a state constitutional convention in order to, among other things, disestablish the Congregational Church. Until 1818, the Congregational Church was the official state church, supported by state taxes.

Sorry, 92 words.

In their older years, JA and TJ are now enjoying life outside of politics. Besides, they’re both on the same side of religious freedom, or at least on the same side of bashing religious dominance.

TJ to JA: “I had believed that [i.e. Connecticut and Massachusetts]*, the last retreat of Monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other states a century ahead of them. They seemed still to be exactly where their forefathers were when they schismatised from the Covenant of works, and to consider, as dangerous heresies, all innovations good or bad. I join you therefore in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.”

I think TJ is referring to both Connecticut and Massachusetts with an implied hope that JA’s home state will soon join the ranks of the enlightened. Massachusetts kept its state-established Congregational Church until 1833.

Here’s JA’s response, and tell me this isn’t someone feeling embarassed by his native land, and overcompensating a wee bit:

JA to TJ: “Oh! Lord! Do you think that a Protestant Popedom is annihilated in America? . . . Do you know that The General of the Jesuits and consequently all his Host have their Eyes on this Country? Do you know that the Church of England is employing more means and more Art, to propagate their demipopery among Us, than ever? Quakers, Anabaptists Moravians Swedenborgians, Methodists, Unitarians, Nothingarians in all Europe are employing understrand [underhand?]** means to propagate their sectarian Systems in these States.”

I get it by now that JA is a bit of an ironical blowhard, and this is a personal letter, not a campaign speech. But this, and TJ’s letter, is obnoxious.

This anti-Catholic language—and the reminder of long-established Puritan institutions in New England—are revealing when you put things into a larger context, and I’m thinking of the waves of Irish-Catholic immigrants that will crash against a wall of suspicion and hatred in Boston, New York, and other American cities in the next 70 years or so after these letters.

I know JA is having some fun (“Nothingarians?”), but some substantive discussion of the merits (and demerits) of religious thought, diversity, dissension, community, etc. would be appreciated from time to time, rather than the incessant “throw-the-bums-out,” especially if we’re calling this the “intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen in all of American history.”

*my note
*editor’s note


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