Gov. Wilbur L. Cross

(Connecticut State Library)

The sober folk of Connecticut refer to their state as the “land of steady habits,” a motto that honors their refusal to let the civic order be disrupted by irrational hatreds or enthusiasms. Yet their habit of keeping religion out of politics is a relatively recent one. To understand how they acquired it, we need to understand how they resolved the tension between Irish and Yankee that unsettled the Nutmeg State—and much of the rest of New England—from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth.

The arrival of large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants after the potato famine of the late 1840s radically altered a white, Anglo-Saxon population that had undergone little ethnic change since the arrival of Puritan settlers from Massachusetts in the 1630s. Anti-Irish sentiment grew quickly among these Yankees, such that by 1855, candidates of the nativist “Know-Nothing” party had won both the governorship and a majority of seats in the General Assembly. The new governor proceeded to disband six Irish companies in the state militia. Legislation was passed that targeted the recent immigrants by increasing the period of residence for naturalization from five to 21 years and requiring literacy tests to vote.

If Connecticut subsequently managed to avoid some of the ugliest manifestations of the Yankee-Irish conflict (like the burning of the Ursuline convent near Boston in 1834), it was because both communities sent their sons to fight in the Civil War. Afterwards the veterans retained some sense of common purpose. But consciousness of having to struggle against Protestant prejudice nonetheless remained a constant of the Irish Catholic experience in the state—until pragmatists on both sides of the divide decided that it was in their mutual interest to remove sectarianism from the public square.

Which brings me to the story of Governor Wilbur Cross and the Yale Athletic Fields. Cross was one of those Connecticut types who used to be more common than they are today. His background was what is known in these parts as Swamp Yankee—a rural East-of-the-River breed distinguished by stubborn independence and limited social graces. Growing up on a farm in Mansfield, he graduated from Yale College in 1885, received a Yale Ph.D. in English literature four years later, and went on to an impressive academic career as professor of English, editor of the Yale Review, and dean of the Graduate School. After retiring, he ran for governor in 1930 and was elected to four successive two-year terms, the Democratic chief executive of what was then a majority Republican state. As a politician he was not so much a reformer as an opponent of machine politics. His family background was Methodist, but he himself was the most nominal of Episcopalians.

In his autobiography Connecticut Yankee, Cross recounts how, at the beginning of the 1933 legislative session, the West Haven tax collector persuaded a member of the House to introduce a bill imposing a tax on real estate in West Haven—land that Yale University was developing for tennis courts and golf links. When it became clear that passage was impossible if Yale was mentioned by name, the bill was amended to apply to athletic fields developed by “educational institutions” outside the towns where the schools were located. This amended bill was whisked through both chambers without so much as a public hearing. Governor Cross, good Yale alum that he was, quickly exercised his veto, which was promptly overridden by the House. With the Senate within hours of doing the same, it occurred to Cross that there was a very non-Yankee educational institution that might also be affected by the bill.

He telephoned Monsignor William Flynn, the chancellor of the diocese of Hartford, and asked whether St. Thomas Seminary, the diocesan school for training Catholic clergy, and its athletic field were in the same town. Flynn responded that the seminary’s main buildings were located in Bloomfield, but that if an athletic field were developed, it would run over the boundary line into West Hartford. Cross told him why he had asked and when Flynn reacted with dismay, he arranged for a meeting in his office with Bishop Maurice McAuliffe that very afternoon. He then called the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Joseph Cooney, a member of the Democratic Old Guard (as Cross called it) but also someone with whom the governor was accustomed to confer about pending legislation. Cooney proceeded to launch into an attack on Yale’s effort to evade legitimate taxation, but Cross interrupted him to say that “as a good Catholic” he should know that St. Thomas Seminary would itself be “hard hit” by the bill. He told Cooney that Bishop McAuliffe and Monsignor Flynn would shortly be meeting with him for a conference. “I am sure that they would like to hear you expound your views on the taxation of educational institutions,” Cross said. Cooney “started, then smiled, and said a conference was not necessary for he would have the bill tabled when it came up for passage in the morning.”

The bill died a quiet death. From that point on (or thereabouts), politicians in Connecticut began to seek similar ways to put the Irish Catholic-Yankee Protestant struggle behind them. This was of particular importance to the Democratic Party, which saw in the New Deal an opportunity to gain control of the state with a coalition of Irish and Swamp Yankees plus Jews, African Americans, and miscellaneous other ethnic groups. In this coalition-building, the Democrats succeeded. They developed a tradition of exquisite ethno-religious ticket balancing that reached its peak under state boss John Bailey (1950s-1970s), where spots were assigned strategically to Jews, African Americans, Irish, Italian, Polish Catholics—and the odd Yankee.

The end of the Irish-Yankee struggle in Connecticut did not come overnight. It may be marked by the 1961 decision of Estelle Griswold, head of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a professor of medicine at Yale, to open a birth control clinic in New Haven in order to challenge the state’s 1879 law banning contraception. The law was vigorously supported by the Catholic Church, but in the end to no avail. In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark decision that, by declaring the law banning contraception unconstitutional via a constitutional right of privacy, laid the basis for Roe v. Wade.

Since then, Connecticut has become a place where appeals to religion are looked at as wholly inappropriate in a political setting. As in other parts of New England, memories of ethno-religious contention have led to an embrace of church-state separation unequalled anywhere else in the country. For those who remember Griswold, it is somewhat ironic that a Connecticut bishop, William Lori of Bridgeport—recently made Archbishop of Baltimore—has this year been leading the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ charge against the federal mandate that insurance plans cover contraceptive services for women free of charge. Outside Connecticut, such objections to mandated contraception coverage have gained traction. It’s a safe bet, however, that Lori’s cause will attract only minimal support in the land of steady habits.

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Program on Public Values. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Religion & Politics and blogs at Religion News Service, under the banner “Spiritual Politics.”