In Connecticut, Faith and Freedom

My journey last week to Boston felt like a tour of the world capital contenders of New England, as the exit signs on interstates, turnpikes, and parkways announced the names of familiar places from Greenwich and Stamford in Connecticut to Quincy and Dedham in Massachusetts. On the way home, I had the opportunity to stop at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, which has the papers of Mayor William H. Mortensen.  In October 1945, just after the first recommendation within the United Nations to place the organization in the United States, Mortensen heard from one of his predecessors, Thomas J. Spellacy.  A Hartford resident, Fred L. Rice, already had suggested his home city as a potential world capital in a letter to the Hartford Courant, but Spellacy carried the idea into official channels with an appeal based on Hartford’s foundations of history, faith, and freedom:

Thomas Hooker leads his congregation from Massachusetts to Connecticut (1893 drawing by Charles H. Niehaus, Library of Congress)

Thomas Hooker leads his congregation from Massachusetts to Connecticut (1893 drawing by Charles H. Niehaus, Library of Congress)

Dear Mayor Mortensen:

The United Nations Preparatory Commission decided last night that the permanent seat of the United Nations will be in the United States. In view of this decision, will you not be so kind as to accept a suggestion?

Our city was founded by a band of Pilgrims from Massachusetts led by the Rev. Thomas Hooker. Some three hundred years ago, here in Hartford, he preached a sermon that for the first time enunciated the doctrine that under God, all power is derived form the people.

This sermon, unfortunately not stenographically recorded, was translated into the Fundamental Orders. This document was the first written constitution in the history of the world. Under it the Colony and State of Connecticut was governed for generations. Democracy as we know it was conceived, born and nurtured in Hartford.

As the site of the birth of freedom, would it not be most appropriate that Hartford be selected as the home of the permanent seat of the United Nations? Would it not be a good omen, as history does repeat itself?

My suggestion would therefore be for you as Mayor, representing all of us, to petition our President to consider the location of the United Nations Organization in our Hartford. I am certain that all of us will join with you in such an appeal.

(Signed) Thomas J. Spellacy

The next step fell to Mortensen’s successor, Cornelius Moylan, who took office in December 1945, as the UN’s interest began to turn toward New England. In a telegram on December 24, 1945, he added more practical considerations such as Hartford’s location midway between Boston and New York. Along with climate, transportation, and educational institutions, Moylan also mentioned Hartford’s “high class industries” as a selling point.  This was not enough to entice the UN’s site-searching team, however. The diplomats focused on the Connecticut suburbs closer to New York City and initially settled on Greenwich — where they surprised and enraged local residents who viewed the prospect of becoming the Capital of the World as a threat to the historic character of their town.

Related: The Parent Generation and Defense of Home


The Parent Generation and Defense of Home

As the Patricia’s Wisdom blog points out today, Capital of the World is a story in which everyday people cross paths with the powerful and prominent – and in some cases, individuals whose legacy was not yet known.  The reviewer was pleased to find that the story includes Prescott Bush, whose son George H.W. Bush and grandson George W. Bush both went on to become presidents of the United States.

Prescott Bush, as a U.S. Senator, 1952-63. (Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress)

Prescott Bush, as a U.S. Senator, 1952-63. (Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress)

In 1946, Prescott Bush was moderator of the town meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut, a town that was caught by surprise when the United Nations selected it as its first choice for the new organization’s headquarters.  Bush was among the civic leaders I refer to as “the parent generation” of World War II, but he was not among the boosters who lobbied for the UN’s attention.  Instead, like some other townspeople in the orbits of growing American cities, he defended the traditional character of his community and its right to self-determination.

Bush summarized his position in a letter to the Greenwich Time newspaper, which published it on February 6, 1946:

Dear Sir:

Because my name has been connected with the opposition to the proposed UNO [United Nations Organization] site, I should like to make clear my feeling in the matter. I presume to speak for no one but myself, although a good many people have called me to voice strong opposition to the proposed site in our neighborhood.

My objection to the proposed site is based on the following points:

1. It certainly appears that the decision of the Committee was reached without the citizens of our community having had any opportunity whatever to express their sentiments regarding the proposition, which was sprung as a complete surprise to our community. Continue reading