Once upon a time, in the very state in which we now reside, it was a very blustery day. Or at least I think it was. The wind was blowing and the trees were rustling and newspapers wafted down the streets of Hartford, while inside the Capitol the General Assembly met to choose the fifty-fourth governor of the state of Connecticut.
The year was 1888. The mayor of Hartford, a businessman by the name of Morgan Gardner Bulkeley, was running against Luzon B. Morris. Morris received 75,000 votes; Bulkeley received 73,000 votes. In my personal opinion, Morris’ edge was no doubt due to the fact that Luzon is the funnier name (always a good way to pick a candidate, in my opinion). Nonetheless, due to pesky third parties, neither of these very large numbers constituted a majority. And so we come back to our blustery day, upon which due to the lack of sufficient numbers, the General Assembly was gathered to chose the next governor, as specified in the current statute. Thus it was that a man with a very large handlebar mustache (who never went to college, but had nonetheless been President of Aetna Insurance company) — a man by the name of Morgan Gardner Bulkeley, whose party, by the way, happened to control the Assembly — became the fifty-fourth governor of this little and almost rectangular state.
Bulkeley’s first term was mediocre. That is to say, it was not really bad, nor was it really noteworthy. It rained, it snowed, laws were passed, bills were rejected. No doubt pockets were lined and lives irrevocably altered. Nonetheless, before we pass to the meat of our story, we ought note that 1888 had somewhat of a predilection for odd election returns: in this very year, Grover Cleveland, who won the popular vote (which doesn’t matter), lost the election to Benjamin Harrison, who won the electoral vote (which apparently does matter), even though Cleveland would come back to win again four years later (which is very odd and is in no way pertinent to anything else I’m saying).
But I digress — back to Bulkeley, the man of the hour. Now, back then, the state parties didn’t like to nominate people to serve consecutive terms; this probably had something to do with a history of people holding the office until they died, which starts to look bad after a while. In any case, Bulkeley wasn’t on the ballot, but that is not to say that the ballot wasn’t very interesting. Alas, we will never know the precise details of its content. Thanks to the secret ballot laws of the progressive era, these precise details are lost to the preservation of political order and rectitude (or at the very least not available over the Internet, which is similarly as disappointing.)
Nonetheless, we do know that the ballots were sufficiently avant-garde that the Assembly found itself locked in a life or death struggle; votes were in question. Indeed, votes were the question. No, dimpled, hanging, and otherwise partially-demarcated chads were not the issue, but the appearance of so called “speckled ballots” cast many votes in a veil of shadow. With a close election looming and bundles of ballots in question, the statehouse was abuzz with allegations of fraud, suspicions of various poxes and rumors of short-lived pockets of something approaching panic. To complicate matters further, control of the Assembly was split (unlike the previous election), with different parties controlling each chamber. And so even if there hadn’t been those pernicious speckles to ruin the mood of the backrooms, any deals percolating therein shriveled beneath the weight of combined scheming.
Thus it was that in from 1890 to 1892, Connecticut was left without a governor. The legislature stayed deadlocked. No new business could be brought to the floor. No appropriations made. Not even any pockets could be lined. This was the crisis of Morgan Bulkeley’s day, this was his time of trial.
What was this man’s response, this man who had worked his way up the ladder of American finance into the halls of state government, this man who was in 1972 inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his service as the National League’s first president? He simply refused to leave. Someone had to govern. And so he quietly set to the task.
The state treasurer, who by a stroke of fate had managed to get himself a decisive election, padlocked Bulkeley’s office — since, of course, there was no reason for him to be there. Nonetheless, Bulkeley simply grabbed a nearby crowbar and forced his way inside. Once there, he borrowed Aetna funds and continued running the state government. Minor squabbles ensued: the governor of New York refused to recognize his authority, forcing Connecticut’s Supreme Court to rule that he was indeed the governor. No doubt the opinion read something like this: “Seeing as how nobody else could figure out who should have won, and seeing as how he is quite forcibly entrenched in his office, and seeing as how a governor IS a nice thing to have, and that being in New York you have no right to say that we don’t have a governor — even if he wasn’t really elected or, for that matter, even on the ballot — yeah, he’s our governor.”
In 1892, once the state had managed to elect itself a governor (and the country re-elect a past president), Bulkeley left state government until he was made Senator a few years later. And thus order and tranquility was preserved in Connecticut in those tumultuous times. And lest you doubt the legitimacy of Bulkeley’s actions, remember that not only was he president of the National Baseball League, but indeed he was unanimously elected — a mandate which most assuredly could carry one to the highest state office in this nearly rectangular land of ours.
As I reflect on politics today, I remember the story of Morgan Bulkeley: a man without a fear of hand tools, a man who boldly kept an office nobody else wanted. A man of the people who fought discrimination when he went to Washington, who fought valiantly in the Civil War, who built up a vital part of the nation’s culture, and who would not let a simple padlock stand in his way. It makes me wish all our elected officials had to display similar zeal, similar strength along the road to public service. Nonetheless, I am glad for our electoral process, for I fear that if our leaders had to break into their offices they might very well be held without trial for the duration of their terms; and while this would be a very effective way of limiting their ability to harm anyone, what a loss to the nation it would be. Think of all the fun, all the entertainment and all the late-night monologues that would be lost without them. And so, as this election year culminates in a blaze of patriotic glory, I give thanks for padlocks and I give thanks for the wonderful spectacle that is American democracy.
Kevin B. Alexander wonders what higher service a public servant could perform than assisting him in breaking down his door — which is bound to be necessary due to the lack of Connecticut state laws against forgetting your keys.