The Charter Oak
WHEN James II became King of England, he made a determined effort to overthrow the liberties of the American colonies. He was a bigoted tyrant, who tried to work hardships upon his own people in England, and to discipline the colonists abroad. His idea was to take away the charters of the New England colonies, with all the rights granted them by former kings, and to make them submit to the arbitrary rule of governors whom he should appoint. Sometimes it seemed that the kings of England did everything they could to destroy the affection of the people of America.
King James sent one of his adherents, Sir Edmund Andros, to New England to be Governor-general of those colonies, with authority to take away their charters and to rule them according to his own and the King's will. Some of the colonies submitted, but those of Connecticut absolutely refused to surrender the precious document. Andros lived in Boston in the most arrogant style, and for a while Connecticut was left undisturbed.
After nearly a year had passed, and the charter of Connecticut still remained unsurrendered, Andros resolved to go after it. Therefore he made his appearance in Hartford with a body-guard of sixty soldiers, and marched up to the Chamber where the Assembly was in session, declaring boldly, "I have come by the King's command to order you to surrender the charter of Connecticut. I am henceforth to be the Governor of this colony, and to give you such laws as it pleases the King to grant. You will at once place the charter in my hands. It is the will of His Majesty, King James II."
Now, the charter allowed the people of Connecticut to elect their own Governor, and to have their own Assembly, and to make their own laws. Consequently, they did not wish to surrender it. Nor were they willing to displease the King if it could be avoided. Therefore they showed much respect to the blustering Andros, and began to explain, entering upon a long and calm debate of why they could not place the charter in his hands.
Governor Treat, who was presiding, addressed Andros with respect and remonstrance. He said:
"Sir, the people of this country have been at great expense and hardship in planting this colony. Their blood and treasure have been freely poured out in defending it against savages and all others who tried to drive them from their possessions. We came here by consent of the King, and His Majesty, Charles II., the brother of our most gracious King, granted us our liberties only fifteen years ago in a charter which we greatly prize. We beg you, therefore, to represent to the King that we are his loyal subjects and will remain faithful to him, but we earnestly desire to keep in our possession the rights and privileges granted us."
Thus the Governor spoke at great length, while Andros grew more and more impatient. He had not come to hear arguments; he had come to get the charter, and words were wasted on him. Night was drawing on, and still the members spoke, as if they would wear out the tyrant with their argument. At length Andros thundered forth,
"No more of this; I am weary of your words. Bring in the charter, or I shall arrest the Assembly."
Reluctantly, the box containing the charter was brought in and laid on the table. Candles were lighted and placed beside it so that it could be seen. It was opened, exposing to view the document the tyrant sought. Andros rose from his seat and advanced to the table to seize the precious papers, and thus end the whole matter, when suddenly someone threw a cloak upon the candles, completely extinguishing them, and leaving the room in darkness.
Amidst the confusion there was a sound of papers being rolled and of feet rushing from the hall. When the candles were re-lighted the charter had disappeared. It was nowhere to be found, and to all the threats and ravings of Andros the members returned a blank stare. No one knew what had become of it. It had disappeared as completely as if it had sunk into the earth.
What had happened? In the Chamber, a brave young militiaman, Captain Joseph Wadsworth, had thrown his cloak over the candles. He had then made a rush for the table, seized the charter and leaped out of a window. To the crowd assembled without he cried: "Make way for me. I have the charter, and it shall not be surrendered to a tyrant." The crowd cheered, and let him through. He disappeared in the darkness, just as the candles were being re-lighted inside the Chamber and Andros was raving in his disappointment.
Wadsworth sped onward, looking for a safe place in which to conceal the document. He came to a great oak tree, standing in front of the house of one of the colonial magistrates. There was a hollow in the tree, ample inside, but with an opening not larger than a man's hand. Into this Wadsworth thrust the charter, and concealed the opening with leaves and rubbish.
"Now, let Sir Edmund rave!" he said to himself. "This oak will keep its secret." And so the oak did. It became known as "The Charter Oak." It stood the storms of many winters, and was pointed out, for one hundred and sixty-nine years afterwards, as the place of refuge of the Connecticut charter. A tempest felled it to the ground in 1856.
As for Andros, he assumed control of Connecticut, charter or no charter, and ruled for a short while with an iron hand. The next year, however, the royal tyrant of England was driven from his throne, and Andros lost his power. He was thrown into prison in Boston, and shipped back to England. Then the precious charter was brought out of its hiding-place by Wadsworth and a few others, who knew where it was, and Connecticut again had her rights and liberty.