SAMPLE ARTICLE: The Unsteady Meaning of “The Land of Steady Habits”
FROM THE STATE HISTORIAN: Walter W. Woodward
[originally published in the Fall 2012 issue]
Why has “The Land of Steady Habits” endured as a moniker for Connecticut for more than two centuries? One reason is that its meaning has proven to be remarkably elastic, capable of changing with the times, the issues, and the attitudes of its users. When it first appeared widely in print in the early 1800s, the term “The Land of Steady Habits” was associated with Connecticut’s ancient tradition of assuring political stability through repeatedly electing the same officials to high office. (See Dave Corrigan’s article, this issue). As these perpetual office holders were to a man members of the Federalist political party that then dominated all New England politics, the phrase was also associated with both Federalism and New England as a region. For Connecticut’s Standing Order, though, “The Land of Steady Habits” struck just the right note, implying wise governance, order, stability, virtue, Congregational piety, and considered resistance to radical and untested innovation. For their political opponents—who would turn the Standing Order out of office and write the state’s new constitution in 1818—“The Land of Steady Habits” proved equally useful as an ironic shorthand for aristocratic rule, cronyism, inequitable taxation, entrenched corruption, and backward thinking. Thus the state’s Federalist governor could accuse his opponents in 1801 of trying to “break in on the steady habits and good regulations of the people” (American Citizen, February 24, 1801) while the Republicans in turn could accuse a Federalist judge of robbing the state treasury for two years “under cover of ‘a steady habit.’” (Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, July 15, 1801) Such charges were typical of the “Steady Habits” press coverage well into the 1820s. They also underscore a feature of the phrase “The Land of Steady Habits” that is instrumental to its longevity: It works equally well when used to highlight positive or negative traits.
Always implicit in “Steady Habits” has been an evaluation of Connecticans’ character. When noting in 1827 that Connecticut “truly was a land of steady habits,” the Boston Commercial Gazette went on to describe the state’s people as, like their puritan forebears, “intelligent, industrious, and religious, . . . (and) of sober manners and conduct.” But the New York Telescope noted in the same year that a third of the deaths in New Haven County were the result of drinking alcohol, which suggested intemperance—not sobriety—was one of the state’s steadiest habits.
Surprisingly, Connecticut’s divorce rates have long contributed to the state’s reputation for steady habits – but not in a good way. In 1849, the Albany Evening Journal noted, “The land of steady habits has acquired a very bad name from its relentless habit of severing the marriage tie for the most frivolous reasons.” Nineteen years later, the New York Observer and, under the headline “Divorce in the Land of Steady Habits,” noted that the divorce rate in Connecticut was double that of Vermont, four times that of Massachusetts, and even worse than that of France during the anything-goes days of the French Revolution. With time, though, Connecticut reversed this trend. In 1946, the press [Hartford Courant, September 29, 1946, “No Reno Here” ] reported that the “land of steady habits had adopted a conservative attitude to divorce.” The state’s divorce rate was now only a quarter of the national average. Forty years after that, though, the tables had turned again. In 1986, The New York Times, reporting that married couples in Connecticut were expected to become a minority by the year 2000, reasoned, “To have steady habits in the land of steady habits is no piece of wedding cake.”
Throughout the centuries, “The Land of Steady Habits” has been used to stand for — or has been used as a foil against —a remarkable list of subjects: Whig principles (for); blue laws (against); locofocosim radical Jacksonian Democrats against monopoly and for laissez-faire economics) (against); beer drinking (for); sushi (for); economic growth (against); drinking at National Guard encampments (against the $50,000 weekly cost); constitutional change (for and against); showing movies on Sundays (against); hair bobbing by women (against); gangland murders (against); manhood (for); proven innovation (for); frugal government (for); corruption in government (against); suspicion of government (for); and fireworks (for), Socialist mayors in Bridgeport (for and against); population diversity (for); opposition to the draft (for); support for the war effort (for); voting reapportionment (against); climbing Mount Everest (for); health, education, and income (for, for, and for). And the list continues to grow. Within the past few months alone, the press has invoked “The Land of Steady Habits” in reference to liberalized marijuana laws, education reform, and both men’s and women’s basketball at the University of Connecticut. All these uses go to show what may, in the final analysis, be the most important thing about a good nickname, and a good state: its ability to adjust to a multitude of changing circumstances. After all these years, then, the steadiest feature of “The Land of Steady Habits” is its capacity for change.