Chapter 7. The Federal Period In Hartford

Close by each other are the homes of two prominent Federalist writers. One is the home of Noah Webster, author of a popular eighteenth and nineteenth century speller and a dictionary, and an active supporter of the Federalist cause. The other home is that of Oliver Ellsworth of Windsor, Connecticut. Ellsworth was the nation's second Chief Justice of United States Supreme Court.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster Birthplace
227 South Main Street, West Hartford, CT (Open Mon-Tues, Thurs- Fri 10-4, Sat-Sun 1-4, June 15-Sept 30; Mon, Tues, Thurs, Sun 1-4, Oct 1-June 14)

Noah Webster was born in 1758 in this 1670s farm house. His father was a weaver and the family sacrificed to send him to Yale College, from which he graduated in 1778 (after serving two short and uneventful spells in the Revolutionary army). At Yale Webster had not prepared himself for any particular occupation, and this led to a fight with his father that ended in Webster being asked to leave the house.

At the house itself one finds the parlor where Noah was born. The room also contains a business desk that his father might have used. Also here is a clock that Noah used in his New Haven home. Across the street his father once had a shed where he kept his loom.

Webster taught school in Hartford and West Hartford and studied to be a lawyer. Admitted to the bar in 1781, he practiced law only intermittently. In 1783 he published the speller, The Grammatical Institute of the English Language. With more than 100 million sold it may have been the most widely read secular book in eighteenth and nineteenth century America.

In 1785 he published "Sketches of American Policy," which promoted the idea of a strong central government. Moving to New York to set up a national magazine, in 1788 he published the "American Magazine" in which he advanced Federalist arguments. Increasingly, he came to the attention of leading Federalists and in 1793 edited "The Minerva," a journalistic outlet for them.

The Federalist infighting between the backers of Alexander Hamilton and the backers of President John Adams caused Webster twice to collapse physically. In order to get away from the fighting, he moved to New Haven in 1798. The peace and quiet there enabled him to work on a dictionary. He struggled with this project for a quarter of a century, finally publishing an unabridged dictionary in 1828.

Webster converted to evangelical Protestantism in the early 1800s during the time known as the Second Great Awakening. He moved to Amherst in 1812 and became one of the primary forces behind the 1821 founding of Amherst College. Orthodox Congregationalists established this college to counter the Unitarian "heresies" coming from such places as Harvard. In 1822 Webster moved back to New Haven, dying there in 1843.

Oliver Ellsworth

Oliver Ellsworth Homestead (Elmwood)
778 Palisado Avenue, Windsor, CT (Open Tues-Sat 1-5, April 1-Nov 1)

In 1665 Josiah Ellsworth acquired the land on which the present house sits. His son Jonathan built the mansion here in 1740. The house, known as Elmwood, saw in 1745 the birth of Oliver Ellsworth, who became the young nation's second Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, succeeding John Jay. Oliver studied two years at Yale where he spent most of his time in non-scholastic pursuits. His parents transferred him to Princeton where he became an outstanding scholar, graduating in 1766.

Oliver's father wanted him to study for the ministry, but Oliver did so for only a year, abandoning the ministry to study law. A year after being admitted to the bar, he married Abigail Wolcott. In all the couple had nine children.

Oliver began a political career that carried him to Hartford as the State's Attorney. He became a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1777, and worked there with Roger Sherman, also from Connecticut. In 1783 he came back to Windsor, residing at Elmwood, and in 1784 became the judge of the Connecticut Superior Court.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1787 as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He was one of five chosen to draft the Constitution. Once written, he tirelessly worked to get other delegates to accept the new document.

Ellsworth wrote the entire Judiciary Act which formed the basis of the nation's Federal Judiciary System. He later became a Connecticut senator in the new federal government.

He later became the second Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. One of the duties he performed in his three and one-half years of service in this post was to administer the presidential oath of office to John Adams. Ellsworth was also a diplomat to France, working to smooth relations between Napoleon and the United States. In the Windsor house you can see the Gobelin Tapestry, "The Shepherd Boy," that Napoleon presented to Ellsworth in appreciation of his services.

Ellsworth had to resign from the Supreme Court because of ill health, returning to Elmwood in 1801. He died in 1807. While visiting the house don't miss seeing the Boston Booby Hut Sleigh, c. 1775, used to bring President Washington to the homestead.


Old Statehouse
800 Main Street, Thomas Hooker Square, Hartford, CT (Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, all year)

Following the end of the American Revolution, during a parade in April 1783, the old wooden capitol building located here burned down. The citizens decided to build a larger meeting place. Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth was one of the first, and largest, subscribers for the new state house -- the first state house constructed in the new nation. The building, designed by Charles Bulfinch, was built between 1793 and 1796. Bulfinch was one of the foremost architects of his day, responsible for designing the capitols of Boston, Augusta, and Washington, D. C. Workers added the present balustrade on the State House roof in 1815; the cupola in 1816; and the cupola clock in 1848.

Here delegates signed the first written constitution in the world. This was also the place where the Hartford Convention of December 1814 was held. New England voices rang out against the War of 1812. Jefferson and Congress imposed the Embargo Act of 1807. This act prohibited all exports out of the United States and forbid American vessels to go to foreign ports. This act boomeranged in that it devastated American foreign trade. Connecticut's exports fell drastically and this in turn led to higher unemployment and depressed farm prices.

The Madison administration continued the Jeffersonian Embargo in the form of the Nonintercourse Act. When the War of 1812 began it was very unpopular in New England, a region which owned three-quarters of all of America's shipping. New Englanders began to refer to the war as "Mr. Madison's War."

Many New Englanders resisted the war and in varied ways: Connecticut Governor Matthew Griswold refused to permit the Connecticut militia to participate in the invasion of Canada; both Connecticut and Massachusetts discouraged recruiting of soldiers in the state; the Hartford Common Council passing a bill forbidding Federal recruiting; and the Massachusetts' lower house passed a manifesto opposing any volunteers.

Federalist strength grew in New England. In 1815 representatives from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, along with some from Vermont and New Hampshire, met at the Hartford Convention. Here they talked about changing the federal constitution, and, if that did not work, of secession.

This convention seriously weakened the Federalist party as it never recovered from the stigma of being unpatriotic. In 1818 the Connecticut electorate voted the Federalists out of office. This led to an early version of the Jacksonian Revolution in the state: enactment of a new constitution to take the place of the Charter of 1662, and introducing universal suffrage, the separation of church and state, and revision of the entire tax system.

In 1872 workers finished the new Connecticut State Capitol. The Old Statehouse became Hartford City Hall from 1879 to 1915. In the building are many paintings by Colonel John Trumbull of Lebanon, including those of the battles of Bunker Hill, Princeton, Quebec, and Trenton. In the original Senate chamber there are fifteen of the original twenty-two chairs and four original window stools. The structure now houses many temporary exhibits.

Connecticut Historical Commission (Bull House)
59 South Prospect Street, Hartford, CT (Open Mon-Fri 8:30-4:30, all year)

Amos Bull built this brick townhouse in 1785. Amos had been a school teacher and choir master, as well as a merchant. This active man had a total of five wives. He divorced two, while two others died during their marriages. His second wife was Catherine Lush, with whom he lived in the Silas Dean House in Wethersfield. She turned out to be ten years older than he and also childless, so the marriage ended in divorce. As soon as the divorce was official he married Abigail Webb, his next-door neighbor (see the Webb house in Wethersfield for more information). Abigail moved into the brick townhouse. Tragedy struck the marriage with the death of their two infants.

The front part of the house was a store. Here Amos Bull sold the locks, hooks, and brass nails used for the old state house. The couple divorced in 1801, quickly remarried, and opened a school in their home. Amos often advised local book publishers. He had four children by his fourth wife, who died in 1809. He remarried for a fifth time to a woman who helped him run an evening school as well as the day school. In 1821 he sold his townhouse. He died four years later, in 1825.

Butler-McCook Homestead
396 Main Street, Hartford, CT (Open daily 12-4, May 15--Oct 15, Tues, Thur, Sat, and Sun 12-4, Oct 15-- May 15)

This is a ten room house. The kitchen was originally a blacksmith and butcher shop constructed in 1740. In 1782 Dr. Daniel Butler, a local physician, purchased and enlarged it into a home and office. The front section was added during the Federal and early Victorian eras. The Butler and McCook families intermarried and lived here continuously up to the time the home was taken over in 1971 by the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Connecticut. Therefore, there are many family items, including furniture, paintings, china, toys, and books.

Other Sites

See the Geographic Cross-Reference for a listing of the numerous sites to visit in and around the Hartford area. When in the Old Saybrook area see the General William Hart House, located at 350 Main Street (I-95 Exit 67, Route 9 Exit 2), Old Saybrook, CT (Open Fri-Sun 12:30-4, June 17-Sept 11). This is a 1767 Georgian style home of a colonial merchant. Period furnishings, corner fireplaces, transfer-print tiles, elegant paneling, colonial herb garden, and gift shop can be viewed. The house is now headquarters of the Old Saybrook Historical Society.


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