State historian: CT’s hardship after the Revolution provides lessons for today

Kyle Constable /

Walter W. Woodward, state historian

When Connecticut joined with 12 other colonies in declaring independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, little did it know that it would emerge from the Revolutionary War facing an unprecedented structural economic crisis that would threaten the state’s fiscal future.

By the early 1800s, Connecticut’s predominately agricultural economy had become unsustainable, which opened the door for the state to embark on a new economic path that would carry it forward for the next century and a half. How Connecticut emerged from that crisis can serve as lesson for the structural economic challenges the state faces today, says Walter W. Woodward, the state historian.

Woodward is Connecticut’s fifth state historian, a position he has held since 2004. He is a history professor at the University of Connecticut.

Woodward sat down with the CT Mirror to talk about Connecticut’s challenges then and now.

Let’s start back 241 years ago when Connecticut joined 12 other colonies in declaring independence. What was Connecticut like when that decision was made?

Connecticut was almost unique among the colonies in that – in fact, it was unique in this regard – Connecticut had had a political change years before the revolution in which they elected Jonathan Trumbull of Lebanon. They elected him governor. He was a Whig-ish, a patriot governor, years before the revolution. He was kind of pro the cause of the people who would fight for independence.

When the United States declared independence, he was the governor of the state. He remained the governor through the Revolutionary War, and at the end of the war. So, we were the one state that had political stability before, during and after the war through this governor and the people in his war council and in the governor’s council with him. So I guess that was the origin of “The Land of Steady Habits.”

Most other states in the country, with the exception of Rhode Island, after we declared independence, they existed because of royal charters only. And they had to go out and develop a constitution for their government. Connecticut had ruled under the Charter of 1662, which effectively granted Connecticut de facto independence a century before the revolution. So when the revolution came, all Connecticut had to do, and all they did was, they passed in the Assembly a law that said in the places where the charter reads, “the king,” say “the people of Connecticut” or “the people of the United States.” So, we essentially continued to rule under the Charter of 1662 until 1818 – again stability in the Land of Steady Habits.

That’s one of the ways Connecticut presented itself in the early days of the republic. We were, after the revolution in the days of the Constitution, we were like a lot of young nations are now. There was a lot of unrest, a lot of instability. We had Shay’s Rebellion, we had the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States. There was a significant amount of tension and popular unrest. Connecticut held itself out and said, “Look, this is how you can do it. We are the model of what a free government can be like. So look to us. We can provide the example. If you think that it’s all going to be unrest and instability, you can, in a republic as an independent people, have a very stable, very productive society.”

Of course, that only lasted a while, but—

In terms of Connecticut’s economy, what did it look like back then?

It’s very interesting. At the end of the revolution and continuing into the early 19th century, Connecticut had significant economic difficulties. In some ways, it was very much like the state today in that the basis for the economy was failing. The long-term ways that the state had generated revenue and people had made their money was in decline. In the 1700s, it was agriculture. The people had farmed the same fields for generations so that the fertility wasn’t nearly what it once was. People who had had big farms when they first settled had divided them up to give to their children, the inheritance of sons. So farms in Connecticut and all over New England – but very much so in Connecticut – they had become smaller and less productive over the 1700s. By the late 1700s, people were leaving the state in droves, especially young people. They felt that economic opportunity was insufficient here, and to survive they had to go elsewhere.

By Sphilbrick via Wikimedia Commons

The vacant Collins Ax Co. mill in the Collinsville section of Canton (Sphilbrick via Creative Commons)

They started by going up the Connecticut River and into Vermont, because many people had seen what is now Vermont during the French and Indian Wars. They thought this would be a good place to settle. The Connecticut River had always been the natural highway for the state, so people followed old trends and moved north. It looked great in the summer. A few winters convinced most of them that, maybe, Vermont was not exactly the best place to build an economic future.

People began to move west. They were moving west in dramatic fashion. By two centuries ago this year, it had reached true crisis proportions. Gov. Oliver Wolcott said to the General Assembly in 1817, I’m paraphrasing, “The most serious problem this state can address is the emigration of young men out of this state to the western lands.” It’s the same kind of concern the state has now. If you don’t attract young people, you don’t have that future economic base you need. And in order to do that, you have to have ways for people to make a living.

Right now, Connecticut is experiencing a structural economic change. We’re in a post-industrial era. We’ve seen in the past year, with GE leaving and Aetna leaving, this is the end of a long train of transformation. Those kinds of jobs are leaving the state. There has to be a new basis for the economy.

It was the same problem in the early 1800s. Agriculture was no longer productive. Agriculture was not a sustainable way for the state to support its economy. And they produced a miracle. What was going on – at the same time people were moving out – is that all around the state, people were harnessing the water power of streams and rivers. Any places where there was a waterfall, they’d set up a factory village and begin creating these new industries.

That became the basis for the Industrial Revolution in Connecticut. That produced a second wave of economic growth that led to the machine tool revolution in the 1840s, ‘50s and ‘60s that produced the giant industrial revolution of the 1880s and 1920s, where there were so many jobs in Connecticut there weren’t enough Yankees left to do them. So they went out and encouraged immigration from Europe, as many people as they could get in. … The seeds were sown for the industrial transformation that carried Connecticut from the 1820s and ‘30s to 1970s and ‘80s.

In the wake of that, what we’re now in – you know, a lot of people think – is a crisis. I think it’s critical. I think we’re in a critical transformation. The governor and the Assembly in the past six to eight years have rolled the dice on biotechnology and education, the investments in the university – the expansion of UConn – and the investment in Jackson Labs and other technology-supporting industries. What I think is going on is the state is trying to find this new third-wave, future basis for the economy. It’s early days yet. I mean, it’s not early days for people who are suffering economic downturns. It’s not early days for people who may lose their jobs when factories leave.

But in terms of the revolution that’s going to replace the economy that is in transformation, we don’t know if it’s going to take yet. They didn’t know when they built that woolen factory or that ax factory in Collinsville that it was going to become the second industrial revolution. That’s what happened. And if we are lucky, and people make the right choices, maybe there will be the transformation we all want.

Let’s look at the present day. In this post-industrial era that we’re living in, it’s an increasingly urban age. How does Connecticut fit into that picture with these smaller cities that are forced to compete with New York and Boston?

This is one of the real trends that, in some ways, is new. Fifty years ago, people were clamoring to get out to the suburbs for a whole lot of reasons. Now, young people are clamoring to live in the cities. And the bigger the city, the better it is. They want that urban experience.

What once was a blessing to Connecticut – that you can work in New York and Boston and live in the suburbs, we’re close enough to these two metropoles that you can still have this retreat in nature close enough to commute, certainly to New York, that was a blessing in the ‘70s and even before that – it is now a bit of a curse. Although young people like to have the New York experience, once they turn 30 or so, they start thinking about having a family. As young people are thinking of raising families, many of them say, “It’d be nice not to do it in such an urban environment.” Many people feel that’s the age at which Connecticut has the best hope of re-attracting younger people back.

Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

The Hartford skyline

The state is trying to address this transformation in a couple of ways. They’re trying to make cities more attractive to younger people. You can literally see it. You can certainly see it in Hartford. There is a transformation going on in Hartford. There’s a vibe down there. You can go to the city and actually feel what’s going on there. It’s not exaggeration to say that it feels like the city is at the point of takeoff, the way that Providence was 20 years ago. Hartford feels like it’s about to become a really dynamic and vibrant city. At the same time, it’s facing this terrible potential for bankruptcy that could just deflate the tires of the plane right at the moment of takeoff, and then who knows what happens?

Apartments in Hartford are renting quickly. Rents are rising, though that can be a problem for young people. State economic officials have worked to help cities become more attractive to young people for the past six or seven years. I think they understood this trend early and have been trying to address it.

We need to keep young people in the state – or get them to go away, and have their urban experience and come back. You can have a few gap years, but then you have to come back. Our population is aging right now. My sense is the relative income of people is either flat or shrinking. Certainly, the projections are you cannot support the state budget or the state economy with the kinds of jobs that are being created now. We are not creating the high-paying jobs that the state tax base has depended on for many years. So we have to reform in a lot of ways to do that.

I think there’s much to be learned by looking back two centuries ago to a similar transformation that took place under different conditions. It doesn’t provide a model for the future, but it does show how people adapted to a significant crisis. The state needs to be remarkably responsive to what’s going on. No more kicking the can down the road, I don’t think. I think we need to face real problems now. But I think they have been looking for solutions that are going to turn things around.

So I think in terms of trying to find that future Industrial Revolution, we’ve been on the case. If everybody knew what it was, every state would be in a boom condition. But in terms of restructuring an economy that strikes me as being out of sync with present realities, we’re seeing that go on right now. Everybody who’s got to deal with this, they’ve got the toughest job in the state over the next few years.

So looking at those tough challenges, what are some of the lessons that can be learned from 200 years ago at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. What are some of the takeaways the state should have today looking back at that time?

Well, in many ways, the state became a province of entrepreneurs. All of these little factory-villes, these weren’t people responding to incentive programs or development programs. It was a different world. It was just people who have an idea to manufacture something, and they could get together some people to invest money.

Arielle Levin Becker / file photo

Dr. J. Travis Hinson in his research space at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington last year

There was experimentation going on at a tremendous level across the state. It was, at that time, handled mostly by individuals because that’s how it worked. The state would support some industries. They’d give people temporary monopolies to develop a new business or corporation. But the way out came from lots of experimental businesses. The interesting thing was they all took advantage of one basic resource, which was energy. The state had a source of energy that a lot of places elsewhere in the country at that time did not have. And that’s the ability to harness water power in multiple ways and from multiple sources.

So what’s the lesson? Take advantage of the resources you have.

The state has really remarkable education facilities. The higher education in this state is quite good. Our defense industry still is remarkably important to the economy, and they do some amazing things here – between Electric Boat, United Technologies, Sikorsky. Those companies are crying for skilled workers. One of the things that attracted them here is that they could get a workforce that was skilled, educated and could handle these skilled production jobs.

I hear now that in many cases, they can’t find people who want to go work on the lines, who want to be trained in the job. In my opinion, we need to think about supporting core industries. I think we’re willing to do that. But in some of the ways, we have to become really agile in the ways we support the economic base that’s here. And we’ve got to become really entrepreneurial in letting people experiment, giving people the freedom to go out and experiment on what’s going to work for the future.

Nobody knew there would be a Samuel Colt in 1810. Nobody knew there would be a Cheney Mills. People didn’t know where it would come from. But by the strength of hundreds of thousands of people experimenting, remarkable things happened. That environment, that attitude – that says we will become not so much the Land of Steady Habits but the Land of Steady Experimentation – may be the key to the future.

In the early 1800s, Connecticut people earned more patents that any other state in the union. People were inventing like crazy. That’s where we want to get back to. How do we do it? I don’t know.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ronald Gutridge.

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS Texas at Pearl Harbor