Remembering when the state was rich and Republican

Once upon a time, Connecticut was two things it hasn’t been for a very long time — rich and Republican.

The state could boast it was Republican from the start, having joined the other New England states, along with New York, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in supporting John C. Fremont, the first presidential candidate of the two-year-old, anti-slavery party. Fremont lost that 1856 election to the man who is perhaps our worst president ever, James Buchanan.  

Connecticut remained faithful to the new party, voting only four times for two Democrats in the 14 presidential elections from Fremont in 1856 to William Howard Taft in 1908. Its only Democratic votes went to loser Samuel Tilden in 1876 after eight years of the corrupt U.S. Grant presidency and Grover Cleveland in 1884, 1888 and 1892. (Cleveland ran for president three times, losing to William Henry Harrison in 1888 but coming back to win his second term in 1892. Republican Connecticut stayed true to Cleveland in all three elections.)

The state wouldn’t support another Democrat for president until 1912, when incumbent Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote and gave the election in Connecticut and the nation to Woodrow Wilson. But the state returned to its Republican ways in 1916, voting for Charles Evans Hughes in Wilson’s successful bid for a second term.

Connecticut stayed safely Republican through the prosperous 1920s, backing Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover in 1928 and even in 1932 when he was beaten by the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt. After that, Roosevelt won Connecticut three times — just like Grover Cleveland.  

Since Roosevelt, Connecticut has voted for Democrats John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republicans Tom Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump.  

But today, we’re looking back at that long-ago time when Connecticut was rich and almost always Republican, except for those remarkable three consecutive votes for Democrat Grover Cleveland. We have the assistance of one of the era’s most prominent Republicans, Samuel Clemens of 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, better known as Mark Twain. And Mark Twain left a wonderful story about that incredible Republican defection in his adopted state.

Hartford’s citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the nation when Twain lived there in the closing decades of the 19th century and Twain, like his prosperous neighbors, customarily voted Republican until the party nominated James G. Blaine.

Blaine, a former speaker of the house and senator, had a fine resume, but one flaw. He was a crook and there were papers to prove it. They detailed his bribes from a railroad or two and one of those letters, signed by him, contained the admonition, “Burn this letter.” This prompted hecklers to greet Blaine with the chant, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the State of Maine,” then shouting, “Burn this letter.” The Democrats nominated a reformer, the governor of New York, Grover Cleveland.

It was all too much for Twain and other prominent Republicans like Union Pacific President Charles Francis Adams and author Henry Adams, descendants of the two Presidents Adams. They wanted to end the political patronage spoils system, which the party had embraced and they didn’t like voting for a crook.

But it wasn’t easy. Twain went to the polls on Election Day with his good friend, Joseph Twichell, the minister of Twain’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church, to vote against Blaine — Twichell with a protest vote for the Prohibition Party candidate and Twain for the ultimate winner, Democrat Cleveland.

Voting was done pretty much in the open in those days and the neighbors noticed, especially members of Twichell’s congregation, which the humorist liked to call the Church of the Holy Speculators.

And on New Year’s Eve, the congregation gathered for its annual meeting, intending to fire its minister for his Election Day heresy. Twain was there and in his autobiography, he recalled how a congregant named Hubbard saved Twichell by appealing to the holy speculators’ values — their property values.

Hubbard claimed the neighborhood owed its very high property values to the appeal of its pastor. He reminded them that the Congregational Church in West Hartford, where property values were low, was “anxious to have now above everything else under God a price raiser. Dismiss Mr. Twichell tonight and they will have him tomorrow. Prices there will go up; prices here will go down. That is all. I move the vote.”

Twichell was retained.

Grover Cleveland served one term, then ran a low-key reelection campaign, receiving visitors on his front porch and saying little while the Republican William Henry Harrison campaigned hard and won. But Harrison’s championship of high tariffs cost him reelection and Cleveland, with Connecticut’s support for a third time, became the only president to serve two, non-consecutive terms. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.