Connecticut is at a crossroad when it comes to entrepreneurship and small business growth. Despite President Barack Obama's recent signing of the fiscal year 2013 defense budget, cuts to the Department of Defense loom in the coming months. If Congress is unable to act with jobs in mind, thousands of civilian contractors and employees in Connecticut may be laid off.
The relationship between defense contracting and entrepreneurship in Connecticut can be traced back to the turn of the 19th century. At the time, the United States was weak and vulnerable. Lacking reliable allies and an industrial base, the United States would need to invest in its own industry in order to survive the next century.
Enter Connecticut, a strategically located and resource-rich state possessing the various raw materials and waterways needed to transport large shipments. The Industrial Revolution thrived in the Connecticut River Valley with the help of the entrepreneurial spirit inherent in Yankee ingenuity.
Most Nutmeggers are familiar with famous early Connecticut industrialists Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt. Often missing from the conversation, however, are the contributions of Simeon North (born 1765), the United States' first official pistol maker and arguably the inventor of interchangeable parts.
North shifted from farming on a small plot in East Berlin in 1799 to pistol making with the help of clockmaker neighbor Elisha Cheney. Putting away the plow for service to the nation was a noble calling, which North had been yearning to answer since he was turned down for service in the Continental Army during the Revolution.
During his 53 years of continuous service to the U.S. military, North's firearms and manufacturing techniques laid the framework for America's industrial boom prior to the Civil War. He perfected interchangeable parts with the invention of the modern milling machine and developed innovative practices that spawned the American system of manufacturing, which spread across New England.
Today North is overshadowed by the better-known figure of Eli Whitney. But, in his own day, North was held up as a model for the nation and quickly garnered attention as a maverick industrial pioneer. Several U.S. presidents, numerous secretaries of war and foreign dignitaries — including the Marquis de Lafayette — visited North's plants in Berlin and Middletown. North's factories not only served as a recruiting base for other firearms manufacturers in the region, but the techniques he mastered became the model for federal armories at Springfield, Mass., and Harpers Ferry, Va.
Although memory of North's accomplishments faded with his death in 1852 and the Civil War, his legacy echoed into the late 1800s, when he was labeled the "Connecticut Man" at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Connecticut's rich firearms tradition is a prime example of the relationship between entrepreneurial spirit, federal subsidization and state nurturing.
Connecticut still does much to promote its risk takers, even as it recovers from hard economic times. Last year, more than 18,000 contracts and $12.7 billion were allocated to Connecticut by the federal government. Our national leadership in aeronautical, marine, and high-tech manufacturing continues our tradition as a haven for entrepreneurs who wish to start up their own business. Like Eli Whitney with the cotton gin or Simeon North with interchangeable parts, Connecticut continues to endorse its industrial innovators.
The state has a national reputation for attracting high-tech manufacturers wishing to start a business. With the help of the Department of Economic and Community Development, as well as the University of Connecticut's Center for Entrepreneurship and Education, the state has maintained its status as a cutting-edge promoter of small business. Through tax incentives, funding and management, Connecticut continues its legacy as a national front-runner in defense contracting.
As we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, for which North was a crucial pistol supplier, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it's important to remember that Connecticut's entrepreneurs played pivotal roles in the survival and maintenance of the republic.
Robert Dornfried, 23, of Berlin, is studying for his master's degree in liberal studies at Wesleyan University and is a history teacher at East Catholic High School. Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan, provided guidance for this article.
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