Hartford Convention

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Hartford Convention – Wikipedia © 2012

The Hartford Convention was an event in 1814–1815 in the United States in which New England Federalists met to discuss their grievances concerning the ongoing War of 1812 and the political problems arising from the domination of the Federal Government by Presidents from Virginia. Despite many outcries in the Federalist press for New England secession and a separate peace with Great Britain, moderates dominated the Convention and such extreme proposals were not a major focus of the convention's debate.

The convention discussed removing the Three-fifths compromise which gave slave states more power in Congress and requiring a 2/3 super majority in Congress for the admission of new states, declarations of war, and laws restricting trade. The Federalists also discussed their grievances with the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo of 1807. However, weeks after the convention's end, news of Andrew Jackson's overwhelming victory in New Orleans swept over the Northeast discrediting and disgracing the Federalists, who then disbanded in most places.


Relations with Great Britain and France

Under the administrations of George Washington and John Adams, a vigorous trade with Great Britain was maintained while both administrations engaged in an undeclared war with France. With the resumption of the Napoleonic Wars at the same time that Thomas Jefferson assumed office, relations with both nations declined. Jefferson's goal was an expansion of free trade created by Great Britain lifting trade restrictions placed against the United States. However to force Britain into compliance, he adopted anti-foreign trade policies such as the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809. These policies were very unpopular among Northeastern merchants and shippers. Jefferson's successor, President James Madison, along with the Republican controlled Congress, continued Jefferson's policies.

The opposing Federalist Party regained strength especially in New England, and in New York where it collaborated with Mayor DeWitt Clinton of New York City and supported him for president in 1812.

Opposition to the War of 1812

When Madison was re-elected in 1812 the reaction in New England intensified. In late 1813 Madison signed a more restrictive embargo act than any of those approved by Jefferson, this time prohibiting all trade between American ports (the coastal trade) and fishing outside harbors. By the summer of 1814, the war had turned against the Americans. After ending their war with Napoleonic France, Great Britain was able to marshal more resources to North America and had effectively blockaded the entire eastern coastline. Territory in Maine was occupied in July, in August the White House and Capitol were burned, and by September the British were advancing further in Maine and the Lake Champlain area of New York. A naval assault on Boston was expected in the near future. Free trade with the rest of the world had virtually ceased, thousands were thrown out of work, and by August banks were suspending specie payment. The federal government was approaching bankruptcy.

New England governors followed a policy of giving minimal support to the Federal government in waging the war. With the exception of Governor John Taylor Gilman of New Hampshire, most requisitions for state militia were denied. New Englanders were reluctant to have their militia, needed to defend their coasts from British attacks, assigned elsewhere or placed under the command of the regular army. General Winfield Scott, after the war, blamed Madison's policy of ignoring Federalists, who in New England constituted the best educated class, when granting regular army commissions in New England.

In Massachusetts feelings were so strong against the war that even the Republican candidate for governor opposed the national party's commerce policies. Federalists still dominated the 1814 elections, returning Caleb Strong as governor and electing 360 Federalists against only 156 Republicans to the lower house of the Massachusetts Legislature. In September Governor Strong refused a request to provide and support 5,000 troops to retake territory in Maine.

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 some New England Federalists had discussed secession from the Union if the national government became too oppressive.

In late September of 1814 Madison asked Congress for a conscription bill. Even though this had not been one of the original grievances that led to the call for the convention, Federalists presented this as further proof of the Republicans intent to bring military despotism into the nation. Thomas Grosvenor of New York saw this as the result of the administration leading the country "defenseless and naked, into that lake of blood she is yet swimming."

Three-fifths compromise

The three-fifths compromise had been brokered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It established the "federal ratio" which counted slaves as three fifths of a person for the purposes of both representation in Congress and the direct taxation of states. Some New Englanders had always opposed the compromise, but most had accepted it as necessary to the adoption of the Constitution. However with the election of Jefferson in 1800 and the subsequent Louisiana Purchase, more Federalists became concerned as it appeared that future expansion of the nation would move in a southwesterly direction, leading to the creation of more and more slave states.

In 1804 the legislatures of both Massachusetts and Connecticut called for the repeal of the federal ratio, but Jefferson still carried every New England state except for Connecticut in the 1804 election. It wasn't until the War of 1812 that the issue was again raised. Arguing that Jefferson and Madison had been elected because of de facto slave representation in the Electoral College, Federalists further claimed that Republican trade policies broke the original understanding that a balance was necessary between agrarian and commercial interests.

Historian Sean Wilentz noted that in recent times it has become popular to link the Federalists' antiwar platform with a humanitarian opposition to slavery. Wilentz, however, looks at the issue as strictly a matter of securing political power for New England. He writes:

Although public attacks on the planters for their immorality and hypocrisy added to the Yankee Federalists' treasury of moral virtue, those attacks often expressed little concern about the slaves, or about slavery as an institution. The Federalists did not hate the Jeffersonians out of antislavery conviction; rather, they sometimes took antislavery positions because they hated the "Jacobin" Jeffersonians.


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.

There are a number of reasons why historians doubt that the New England Federalists were seriously considering secession. All the states, especially Connecticut with its claims to western lands, stood to lose more than they would gain. Efforts were made in the delegation selection process to exclude firebrands like John Lowell, Jr., Timothy Pickering, and Josiah Quincy who might have pushed for secession. Also, the final results did not propose secession.

Despite this, the Madison administration had reasons to be concerned about the consequences of the Hartford Convention. Federalists were already blocking efforts to finance the war and bring it to a successful conclusion that included an invasion of Canada. There were fears that New England would negotiate a separate peace with Great Britain, an action in many ways just as harmful to the nation as actual secession. In preparing for a worst case scenario, Madison moved troops from the New York -- Canadian border to Albany where they could quickly be sent to Massachusetts or Connecticut if needed to reserve federal authority. Several New England regiments that had participated in the Niagara campaign were returned home where it was hoped that they could serve as a focal point for New Englanders opposed to disunion.

Call for the Convention

In response to the war crisis, Governor Strong called the newly elected General Court to a special session on October 5, 1814. Strong's message to the legislature was referred to a joint committee headed by Harrison Gray Otis. Otis was considered a moderate. His report delivered three days later called for resisting any British invasion, criticized the leadership that had brought the nation close to disaster, and called for a convention of New England states to deal with both their common grievances and common defense. Otis' report was passed by the state senate on October 12 by 22 to 12 and the house on October16 by 260 to 20.

A letter of invitation was sent to the other New England governors to send delegates to a convention in Hartford, Connecticut. The stated purpose of the convention was to propose constitutional amendments to protect their section's interests and to arrange with the Federal government to arrange their own military defense.

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 denounced Madison's "odious and disastrous war", voiced concern about plans to implement a national draft, and selected seven delegates led by Chauncey Goodrich and James Hillhouse, at the head. Rhode Island's Legislature selected four delegates to "discuss "the best means of cooperating for our mutual defense against the common enemy, and upon the measures which it may be in the power of said states, consistently with their obligations to adopt, to restore and secure to the people thereof, their rights and privileges under the Constitution of the United States." New Hampshires legislature was not in session and its Federalist governor, John Gilman, refused to call it back into session. Vermont's legislature voted unanimously not to send delegates. Two New Hampshire counties and one Vermont county each sent a delegate, bringing the total to 26. On December 15, 1814 the delegates met at the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut.

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

  • Massachusetts

    • George Cabot

    • Harrison Gray Otis

    • Nathan Dane

    • William Prescott, Jr.

    • Timothy Bigelow

    • Joshua Thomas

    • Samuel Sumner Wilde

    • Joseph S. Lyman

    • Stephen Longfellow, Jr.

    • Daniel Waldo

    • Hodijah Baylies

    • George Bliss

  • New Hampshire

    • Benjamin West

    • Mills Olcott

  • Connecticut

    • Chauncey Goodrich

    • John Treadwell

    • James Hillhouse

    • Zephaniah Swift

    • Nathaniel Smith

    • Calvin Goddard

    • Roger Minott Sherman

  • Rhode Island

    • Daniel Lyman

    • Samuel Ward, Jr.

    • Edward Manton

    • Benjamin Hazard

  • 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 closed 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 Orleans, 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.

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