Why is New England made up of six states? If you combined all them, you’d still have an area less than two-thirds the size of Kansas. Why not put them all together into one? Odd as the idea may seem, it was a serious suggestion by Connecticut Governor Wilbur Cross.
Cross was an unconventional politician. A Democrat swept into office in 1931 in a Republican state, he served four terms and saw Connecticut through the Great Depression. He was a Yale University professor and dean who was outspoken with his political views among his friends. He was chosen by his party to run for office largely because there were very few people interested in trying to topple the well-established Republican machine in Connecticut. Cross was called “Uncle Toby” after a character in the novels of Irish author Laurence Sterne, who had been dead since 1768 and was the subject of one of Cross’ scholarly works.
He summered in Sunapee, New Hampshire, despite the appearance of being aloof from the cares of the common man, and he didn’t start his tenure as governor until he was 68. Despite his unconventional path to the governor’s office, Cross was a likable man who began his tenure as a typical frugal Yankee governor. Though he was a great friend to higher education, he didn’t much believe in government spending to jump start the economy, even if it was flat on its back. Eventually, however, he came to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal as a means of helping people get back to work.
He was one of the pioneers of the New England Governor’s Conference, which facilitates the New England state’s efforts to collaboratively address problems faced by the entire region. And it was to this group, his fellow governors, that Cross floated the idea of becoming a single state. He was hardly the first person to suggest it. In fact, under English rule in 1686, the entire region was combined with New York and New Jersey and given the name Dominion of New England, under the governance of Edmund Andros from 1686 to 1689. That experiment ended badly after two years when Andros was run out of office in the turmoil following England’s Glorious Revolution.
However, there was a long history of New Englanders working together as far back as 1643 with the creation of the United Colonies of New England, established for the purpose of fighting with the Indians. Emboldened by this history, Cross broached the idea again almost 300 years later.
He tells the story in his autobiography: “Why not I asked in an after luncheon talk before my fellow New England governors break down these artificial barriers and merge our six states into one of respectable area as a means of stemming the rising tide of cost of government? “Just let your minds rest for a moment on the unjustifiable cost of maintaining six governors and six lieutenant governors and their aides, their secretaries and stenographers to write and copy their speeches to be read of the radio, and large allowances for their upkeep and for travel all over the United States of America. “And add to all this the enormous cost of six annual sessions of Legislatures which never adjourn until they are compelled to by law. “What a racket! Millions of dollars which we now waste every year might be saved by merely uniting under the banner of one state and placing in the governor’s chair a man like Calvin Coolidge who never let loose a nickel unless he had to.”
The idea was not popular with either the public, influential newspapers or Cross’ fellow governors. It did help encourage the governors to work together on issues important in the day such as taming and managing the railroads and controlling floods and pollution of the rivers that run throughout New England.
The six governors got so comfortable together, they once barged in to the president’s office to press their case on regional issues. Surprised at their visit, FDR joked: “What, all of six of you? You’re not going to secede from the Union, are you?” Secede? No. And as for formal merger? New Englanders had too much independence to take to the idea of subsuming their individual identities into a single state. But for a while, at least, it was being considered.