The Hartford Convention was a gathering of 26 delegates from New England who met in December 1814 to consider a Federalist response to the policies of the United States government, then dominated by the Republican Party of Pres. James Madison, during the War of 1812. Although the decision for war with Great Britain was strongly supported in the South and West, the merchant and fishing interests of New England were closely tied to the British economy and the fishing grounds off the coast of British Canada, respectively. Increasingly suspicious of Madison and the national government, the convention delegates proposed strengthening the power of the states over their own militias (to prevent them from being conscripted by the national government). They also proposed several amendments to the U.S. Constitution aimed at diluting the powers of the central government. However, when the news of the Treaty of Ghent reached the United States in February 1815, the Hartford Convention was widely ridiculed, and the Federalist Party ceased to be an effective voice in American politics.
In an attempt to keep the United States out of the war between Great Britain and Napoleonic France, Pres. Thomas Jefferson had urged a policy of "peaceful coercion." He hoped this approach would compel the two belligerent powers to respect the sovereignty of the United States, which included respecting the neutrality of merchant ships sailing under the American flag. His most notable attempt at peaceful coercion was the Embargo Act, passed in December 1807 in response to the seizure of American merchant ships and seamen on the high seas by the Royal Navy, and to the British government's Orders in Council, which declared that any neutral merchant ship wishing to trade with France must first purchase a license from a British port. Jefferson's embargo both restricted all American merchant ships to domestic waters—thus denying them trade with foreign ports—and prohibited the export of all American agricultural and manufactured goods. Jefferson's plan backfired, however. The embargo made little impact at all on the French, and it proved to be a boon to the British merchant fleet, which enjoyed a near-monopoly of the transatlantic shipping trade while American merchantmen lay idle. Furthermore, the law had a catastrophic effect on the American economy, as the revenue from both exports and imports plummeted in 1807 and 1808. The merchants of New England, predictably, suffered the most, and they continued trading surreptitiously with British ships offshore and on the high seas. The embargo was repealed in 1809.
Relations with Great Britain continued to deteriorate, and President Madison asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain on June 1, 1812. His primary reason for war was the violation of American neutrality by Great Britain, including the seizure of American ships and the impressment of American seamen, under the claim that they were in fact deserters off Royal Navy ships. Other justifications for war included the continued blockage of the American coastline and the refusal of the British government to repeal the Orders in Council. Enthusiasm for war was rampant among most Republicans, including the "War Hawks," a small but fiercely nationalistic and vocal presence in Congress, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, the Speaker of the House. The vote for war was 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate. The War Hawks, and most other Republicans, believed the United States would win the war quickly.
During the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams, the Federalist Party represented the idea of a strong national government, so it was ironic that the Federalists now came to champion the rights of the individual states, while the Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison was now more synonymous with the national government. By 1812 the Federalists were reduced to a sectional party centered in New England. They represented the commercial and merchant interests, which had been severely hurt by the embargo. Whereas the early American nationalism of the Revolution had stemmed largely from New England—and from Massachusetts, in particular—the new nationalism had shifted to the South and West and was represented by members of the younger generation, such as Clay and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Indeed, the impressment of American sailors and the seizure of civilian merchant ships was more of an outrage to Republicans in Congress than to the Federalists. For them, while impressment and seizure were certainly a concern, the embargo had caused more damage to the economy of the New England states than the Royal Navy ever had.
Federalist New England increasingly felt isolated from and ignored by the rest of the country. In 1812, Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong called for a widely publicized day of fasting to demonstrate opposition to the war and kinship with the British people. Because both Jefferson and Madison, the embodiments of Republican ideology, did not approve of a large standing army, the federal government relied on the states to provide troops in times of emergency. In further demonstration of his region's opposition to the conflict, Strong and three other New England governors refused to mobilize the state militia for wartime service with the federal army. As the war progressed, the nation's unpreparedness became increasingly evident; the humiliation culminated in the sack and burning of government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House, in Washington, D.C.
Although New England Federalists were not homogeneous, they were united in their belief that the powers of the national government had grown too strong under the "Virginia dynasty" of presidents Jefferson, Washington, and Madison. Moreover, the war only served to further highlight the vastly different economic interests between the maritime states of New England and the more agricultural states of the South and West. This distrust was by no means new: for a decade the sections had clashed over territorial expansion. Although the leading men in New England politics were, given their financial and cultural connections to the sea, in favor of American economic expansion, they disapproved of the opening of the West. Jefferson's purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 had alarmed many New England Federalists, who were concerned that such a large nation would grow too unwieldy to support republican ideals. The only alternative to such a collapse, then, was disunion.
Calls for secession began to appear in the public press in 1808, although disunionist sentiment had been present in Massachusetts as far back as 1786—thus preceding the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. Many newspapers advocated a separate peace with England. Still others called for Madison's resignation. For many Federalists, particularly in Massachusetts, the Union had come to be viewed as a perpetually conditional enterprise. Governor Caleb Strong himself believed the question was not if the Union would split, but when.
However, much of the Federalist Party leadership, including Strong, was reluctant to openly advocate or engage in activities that could be viewed as extralegal or even treasonous. In October 1814, the Massachusetts General Court, in response to popular pressure for political action (of any sort) stemming from letters circulated by Noah Webster and others, called a convention of Federalist leaders to gather in Hartford, Connecticut. Twenty-six delegates, primarily from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, gathered on December 15. On the whole, the delegates represented a moderate strain of New England Federalism. Most of them, in fact, including Harrison Gray Otis, the architect of the gathering, intended the convention to have a calming effect on an increasingly radical populace, which was clamoring for disunion and Madison's resignation. The delegates, who conducted the convention in secrecy, rejected the idea of secession and emerged on January 5, 1815, with their Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention.
The report called for an individual state (or group of states) to be entrusted with an increased responsibility for the defense of its own territory, and for giving state governors, not the federal government, primary control of their respective militias. The convention also proposed six amendments to the U.S. Constitution; included was the abolition of the three-fifths clause, by which the slaveholding states counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for census purposes and for the allocation of members to the U.S. House of Representatives—and thus artificially inflated the South's influence in Congress. Also included was a proposal for a 60-day time limit on any future embargo. In an effort to prevent runaway westward expansion, the report also proposed the concurrence of two-thirds of Congress before a new state could be admitted to the Union. In a challenge to the Virginia dynasty, the convention also proposed limiting presidents to serving one term and making it illegal for a president to succeed another from the same state. Finally, the convention reserved the right to reconvene, should the adopted measures be rejected by Congress. In short, the report was in many respects a summary of the political grievances endured by New England during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison.
This etching from 1814 titled "The Hartford Convention or Leap No Leap" satirizes the pro-Britain sympathies and anti-Madison animus of the Hartford Convention. The three figures on the cliff—convention members Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—are agonizing over who will jump first into the outstretched arms of King George III, while radical secessionist Timothy Pickering kneels on the water's edge below and prays for a successful leap.(Library of Congress)
Certainly the convention had succeeded in achieving one goal of the more moderate Federalists. The public fervor that had threatened to erupt faded rapidly after the publication of the Report. Indeed, delegate Harrison Gray Otis feared the convention had been too successful in this respect. Caleb Strong praised the work of the convention in a speech before the General Court of Massachusetts, and the state legislature voiced its approval of the convention.
Strong dispatched three delegates from the convention to Washington, D.C., to present the Report and Resolutions to Congress and the president. They went somewhat grudgingly—no doubt reluctant to face ridicule or hostility in the nation's capital, arriving on February 13, just days after the city learned of Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The next day, news arrived of the successful negotiations of the American peace commissioners (including the former leader of the War Hawks, Henry Clay) at the Flemish city of Ghent. A peace treaty, as it turned out, had been signed on Christmas Eve. The cessation of hostilities that accompanied the Treaty of Ghent negated, in the eyes of the general public, both the purpose of the Hartford Convention and the presence in Washington of the three Federalist delegates, who found themselves and their political party publicly derided.
It was unfortunate for New England Federalism that the Hartford Convention occurred when it did, just as the final details of a peace treaty were being negotiated. As a result, the Federalist Party lost credibility in the eyes of much of the nation. The actions of New England were viewed as unpatriotic at best and treasonous at worst. Prior to the convention, the Federalists had already been slowly reduced to the status of a sectional party whose influence was predominantly exercised on the state and local levels. Although the convention did serve, as was its intention, as a voice of opposition to the war and the large Republican majority, that also came too late. And although Federalism would survive for some time, particularly in the conspicuous form of Chief Justice John Marshall, never again would it regain a dominant place in American political life.
- To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
- The Republic in Peril: 1812 New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.
- America on the Brink: How the Political Struggle over the War of 1812 Almost Destroyed the Young Republic. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
- The Era of Good Feelings New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1952. .
- History of the Hartford Convention 1833. Reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. .
- The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy New York: Harper & Row, 1965. .
- The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party, 1815-1830. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962. .
- The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. .
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