By Elizabeth J. Normen
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2005
“Washington slept here.” This claim, often of dubious veracity, long ago became our national cliché. It seemed every inn, tavern, and historic home wanted to claim a piece of the legend of our nation’s first president. But George Washington really did sleep here in Connecticut occasionally between 1780 and 1782, the pivotal years of the American Revolution. General Washington came to Hartford and Wethersfield 225 years ago to meet, for the first time, the French general, the comte de Rochambeau, and discuss strategies for winning the war against England. Nathan Hale, our state hero, was born 250 years ago. These twin anniversaries, which are being commemorated at events across the state this year, prompted our choice of this issue’s theme.
Despite our lack of battlefields to show for it, Connecticut played an important role in the closing years of the Revolutionary War. The alliance between Washington and Rochambeau was fostered here; French troops were quartered in our fields and taverns as they waited out the winter and then marched across the length of the state on their way to Yorktown for the decisive battle of the war. Ann Harrison and Mary Donohue’s story on page 20 provides new insight into the meetings held here between the French and American generals. Read more about Nathan Hale and how the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry is celebrating the anniversary of Hale’s birth on page 38.
But we at CTExplored aren’t content merely with accounts of major military heroes: we always dig deeper. Hidden treasures and lost tales, after all, are our raison d’etre (as the French would say). And, as usual, for this issue we found inspiring stories of lesser-known individuals who fought for and achieved freedom and justice—on scales both large and small. Mark Jones and Nancy Albert bring us the story, in pictures, of Hartford resident Josephine Bennett, who (along with many other women, including actress Katharine Hepburn’s mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn) agitated for women’s right to vote. Barbara Donahue offers a walking tour of Farmington sites where abolitionists gave safe haven to fugitives on the Underground Railroad. Walter Smith, a subscriber who now lives in California but grew up in the capital city, brings us a tale of freedom of a very different kind: that of a small boy who spends a Saturday in 1930s Hartford at the movies without any adult supervision—if you don’t count the winos in the back row, which we don’t. (Watch for another installment of Walter Smith’s Bedford Street sketches in the next issue.)
Our stories also serve as reminders that our national ideal of “Liberty and Justice for All” has long been, and remains, a work in progress. Attorney Jeffrey White’s story about the Palmer Raids, in which hundreds of immigrants suspected of being Communists were jailed and deported in the late 1910s and early 1920s, resonates today as we experience the impact of the Patriot Act, reports of a rising mistrust of immigrants in the U.S., and heightened concern for homeland security. Though the circumstances were much different, this story reads like a cautionary tale.
As we prepared this issue, historian David McCullough’s book about George Washington, 1776, was released. In an interview in Newsweek (May 23, 2005), McCullough remarked, “We are shaped by people we have never met. Yes, reading history will make you a better citizen and more appreciative of the law, and of freedom, and of how the economy works or doesn’t work, but it is also an immense pleasure the way art is, or music is, or poetry is.” We couldn’t have said it better. We, as Americans and as Connecticans, are shaped by those who have gone before, individuals who risked all, stood up, spoke out, put their lives on the line; people we have never met—until now.
Read more stories from the Fall 2005 issue.