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The Hartford Convention was an event in 1814–1815 in the United Statesmarker during the War of 1812 in which New Englandmarker's opposition to the war reached the point where secession from the United States was discussed. The end of the war with a return to the status quo ante bellum disgraced the Federalist Party, which disbanded in most places.

Policies of Jefferson and Madison: Cut off trade

Thomas Jefferson's anti-foreign trade policies, particularly the Embargo Act of 1807 and James Madison's Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, were very unpopular in the northeastern United States, especially among merchants and shippers. Jefferson's successor, President James Madison, was even less popular in New England, particularly after his prosecution of the War of 1812, which ended legal trade with Englandmarker. The opposing Federalist Party, formerly quite weak, regained strength especially in New England, and in New Yorkmarker where it collaborated with Mayor DeWitt Clinton of New York City and supported him for president in 1812.

Reaction of New England to commerce impediments

When Madison was re-elected in 1812 the reaction in New England intensified. The war turned against the Americans, and the British effectively blockaded the entire coastline. Almost all maritime activity (apart from smuggling) was stopped and New England interests suffered.

Massachusetts and Connecticut felt that they were physically threatened from without. They also experienced the repercussions of their opposition to Madison's position on relations with England. Instead of entrusting their governors with local defense, as the administration had entrusted the governors of States which supported the war, the President now insisted upon retaining the exclusive control of military movements.

Because Massachusetts and Connecticut had refused to subject their militia to the orders of the War Department, Madison declined to pay their expenses. Consequently, critics said that Madison had abandoned New England to the common enemy. The Massachusetts Legislature appropriated $1,000,000 to support a state army of 10,000 men. Harrison Gray Otis, who inspired these measures, suggested that the Eastern States meet in convention in Hartford. As early as 1804 New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive. Those Federalists opposed to war with Britain and supportive of secession were called the Blue light federalists.

Secession was again mentioned in 1814–1815; all but one leading Federalist newspaper in New England supported a plan to expel the western states from the Union. Otis, the key leader of the Convention, blocked radical proposals like seizing the Federal customs house, impounding federal funds, or declaring neutrality. Otis thought the Madison administration was near collapse and that unless conservatives like himself and the other delegates took charge, the radical secessionists might take power. Indeed, Otis was unaware that Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong had already sent a secret mission to discuss terms with the British for a separate peace.

Delegations

On October 10, 1814, the Massachusetts state legislature called for the Hartford Convention, ostensibly to discuss several constitutional amendments necessary to protect New England's interests. On December 15, 1814, delegations from all five New England states were to meet at the Old State Housemarker in Hartford, Connecticutmarker. Official delegations were sent by Massachusetts, Connecticutmarker, and Rhode Islandmarker.

Twelve delegates were appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature, of which George Cabot and Harrison G. Otis were chief (see list below). In Connecticut, the legislature of which denounced Madison's conscription plan as barbarous and unconstitutional, a delegation of seven was made up — Chauncey Goodrich and James Hillhouse, at the head. Rhode Island's Legislature added four more to the list. So deep-rooted, however, was the national distrust of this movement that Vermont and New Hampshire shrank from giving the convention a public sanction. New Hampshire had a Republican council; while in Vermont the victory at Plattsburghmarker stirred the Union spirit; Governor Martin Chittenden himself having changed in official tone, after the war became a defensive one. Violent county conventions representing fractions of towns chose, however, three delegates, two in New Hampshire and one in Vermont, whose credentials being accepted by the convention, the whole number of delegates assembled at Hartford was twenty-six.

The following lists the states that attended and the names of the attendees.









  • Vermont
    • William Hall, Jr.


Secret meetings

In all, twenty-six delegates attended the secret meetings. No records of the proceedings were kept, and meetings continued through January 5, 1815. After choosing George Cabot as president, and Theodore Dwight as secretary, the present convention remained in close session for three continuous weeks. Surviving letters of contemporaries show that representative Federalists labored with these delegates to procure the secession of New England. Assembling amid rumors of treason and the execration of all the country west of the Hudson, its members were watched by an army officer who had been conveniently stationed in the vicinity. Cabot's journal of its proceedings, when it was eventually opened, was a meager sketch of formal proceedings; he made no record of yeas and nays, stated none of the amendments offered to the various reports, and neglected to attach the name of authors to propositions. It is impossible to ascertain the speeches or votes of individual delegates.

Convention report

The convention ended with a report and resolutions, signed by the delegates present, and adopted on the day before final adjournment. The report said that New England had a "duty" to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty — a doctrine that echoed the policy of Jefferson and Madison in 1798 (in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions), and which would later reappear in a different context as "nullification."

The Hartford Convention's final report proposed several amendments to the US Constitution. These attempted to combat the policies of the ruling Republicans by:
  1. Prohibiting any trade embargo lasting over 60 days;
  2. Requiring a two-thirds Congressional majority for declaration of offensive war, admission of a new state, or interdiction of foreign commerce;
  3. Removing the three-fifths representation advantage of the South;
  4. Limiting future Presidents to one term;
  5. Requiring each President to be from a different state than his predecessor. (This provision was aimed directly at the ruling Virginia Dynasty.)


Negative reception



The Democratic-Republican Congress would never have recommended any of New England's proposals for ratification. Hartford delegates intended for them to embarrass the President and the Republicans in Congress—and also to serve as a basis for negotiations between New England and the rest of the country.

Some delegates may have been in favor of New England's secession from the United States, and forming an independent republic, though no such resolution was adopted at the convention. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison rejected the notion that Hartford was an attempt to take New England out of the Union and give treasonous aid and comfort to Britain. Morison wrote, "Democratic politicians, seeking a foil to their own mismanagement of the war and to discredit the still formidable Federalist party, caressed and fed this infant myth until it became so tough and lusty as to defy both solemn denials and documentary proof."

Massachusetts actually sent three commissioners to Washington, D.C. to negotiate these terms. When they arrived in February, 1815, news of Andrew Jackson's stunning victory at the Battle of New Orleansmarker, and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, preceded them and, consequently, their presence in the capital seemed both ludicrous and subversive. They quickly returned. Thereafter, both Hartford Convention and Federalist Party became synonymous with disunion, secession, and treason, especially in the South. The party was ruined, and survived only in a few localities for several more years before vanishing entirely.

Footnotes

  1. Schouler, History of the United States vol 1
  2. Morison (1969) 362-70
  3. Lalor, Cyclopedia of Political Science
  4. Morison 1969 p 394


References

  • Lyman, Theodore, A short account of the Hartford Convention: taken from official documents, and addressed to the fair minded and the well disposed; To which is added an attested copy of the secret journal of that body. Boston: O. Everett, 1823.
  • Adams, James Truslow. New England in the Republic, 1776-1850 (1926)
  • Banner, James M., Jr. "A Shadow Of Secession? The Hartford Convention, 1814." History Today 1988 38(Sep): 24-30. ISSN 0018-2753 Fulltext online at Ebsco; short summary
  • Banner, James M. Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (1970).
  • Buckley, William Edward. The Hartford Convention. Yale University Press (1934)
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist (1913); revised edition (1969)
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. "Our Most Unpopular War," Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings 1968 80: 38-54. ISSN 0076-4981. Morison calls the War of 1812 undoubtedly the most unpopular the nation has ever waged. Opposition to the war came from other sections besides New England, although the hostility of the New England Federalists was more apparent since they controlled the State governments. He contends that the chief sponsors of the Hartford Convention intended to avoid State secession at all costs, and he scorns the myth that New England secession was thwarted by the Treaty of Ghent and Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
  • Samuel Eliot Morison, Frederick Merk, and Frank Freidel, Dissent in Three American Wars (1970), ch. 1
  • James Schouler, History of the United States vol 1 (1891), provides the text for portions of this article
  • John J. Lalor (ed.) Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States by the Best American and European Writers (1899)
  • The Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention (Wikisource)
  • Stacey Meider. The Convention of the Semi-Gods, Los Angeles: California. 2005.



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