The Hartford Convention was a gathering of leading New England Federalists during the War of 1812 (1812–1815). Held between 15 December 1814 and 5 January 1815 in Hartford, Connecticut, it featured twenty-six attendees from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Its members included many of New England Federalism's leading lights.
background and motives
This assemblage was many years in the making. It went back to the election of 1800, which swept Federalists out of power and installed Thomas Jefferson, the chief of the rival Democratic Republican Party, as president. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Federalist strategists feared that this territory would add new states to the Democratic Republicans' power base in the South and West. Moreover, these states would enjoy added representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and, consequently, the electoral college, under the Constitution's clause counting three-fifths of the slave population. Despairing of ever regaining national power, leading Federalists adopted a sectionalist strategy, hoping to retain their strength in New England and make it the last bastion of Federalism. They appealed to a northern audience, seeking repeal of the three-fifths clause. Some talked of seceding from the Union to form a "Northern Confederacy." Yet in 1803 and 1804, only Connecticut and Massachusetts called for the abolition of slave representation, and the "Northern Confederacy" plot went nowhere.
Federalist popularity rose in 1808 after passage of Jefferson's embargo of trade with Britain, which proved devastating to the New England economy, but it was the War of 1812 that produced a formidable, organized opposition to the federal government in New England. For Yankee Federalists, the war was the latest and worst Republican measure meant to destroy their region's commerce and political power. They also believed that it was immoral, partly because the United States took the offensive by invading Canada. Furthermore, the British invaded New England early in 1814 and seemed poised to strike again even harder later in that year.
Faced with a defense crisis and burning with sectional and partisan antagonism, citizens organized town meetings throughout Massachusetts in 1814. These gatherings petitioned the state legislature to protect their towns in the federal government's place and to remedy the political ills that had produced the war in the first place. The petitioners called for an assembly of New England states to consider how to wrest the Constitution back from its usurpers, the slaveholders of the South and the upstarts of the West. These remonstrances typified the charged atmosphere that produced the Hartford Convention.
Massachusetts state legislators heard this call. Acknowledging that they were responding to the town memorials, the lawmakers voted by large margins on 18 October 1814 to invite other states to a convention. Other state legislatures followed Massachusetts's lead, but they all appointed delegates who were calculated to cool the passions that produced the convention. The men they appointed were moderate Federalists unlikely to take rash measures despite the harsh rhetoric swirling around wartime New England.
The Hartford Convention's main product was a report encapsulating New England's grievances and calling for constitutional amendments to redress them. Its introduction dwelt at length on matters of defense and introduced the proposed amendments as meant "to strengthen, and if possible to perpetuate, the union of the states, by removing the grounds of exciting jealousies, and providing for a fair and equal representation, and a limitation of powers, which have been misused" (Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention, p. 370). It rejected disunion, much to the dismay of some Federalist hotheads and the surprise of Democratic Republicans who had painted the secretive conference as traitorous.
The report proposed seven constitutional amendments. The first two sought to remove perceived structural supports for Republican power. The first abolished slave representation. This was in part a response to the Massachusetts towns, whose memorials consistently listed the abolition of the three-fifths clause first among their demands. The second required a two-thirds vote in Congress, rather than a simple majority, for the admission of new states. This proposal resonated with a long-standing Federalist complaint and was only aggravated by the admission of Louisiana as a state on the eve of the war.
The next few were aimed at specific Republican policies. The third and fourth limited embargoes to sixty days and required a two-thirds vote for their passage. The fifth made a two-thirds vote a condition for waging offensive war. The sixth barred those of foreign birth, even if naturalized, from holding any national office, including a seat in either chamber of Congress. This was a jab at the likes of foreign-born Albert Gallatin, longtime secretary of the Treasury under Republican presidents. The final amendment sought to prevent a repetition of the successive two-term presidencies of Virginians Jefferson and James Madison, limiting presidents to one term and declaring that no two presidents in a row could hail from the same state. The report was sent out to all states as a means of starting the amendment process.
Both the end of the war and the stigma attached to the Hartford Convention weakened its political force. It adjourned just as word reached America of the Treaty of Ghent (December 1814), which ended hostilities. From beginning to end, the convention was so tied up with questions of defense and wartime grievances that word of peace halted its impetus. The legislatures of Connecticut and Massachusetts directed their states' congressional delegations to present the report to Congress. But they complied only perfunctorily, and Congress took no action.
Although the convention thus ended with a whimper, in the long term it became more like a hiss and a byword. Despite the relatively moderate nature of its report, the Hartford Convention became the symbol for sectionalism and disunionism. That disrepute sealed the national demise of the Federalist Party and lasted for decades. Well into the 1840s, northerners and southerners of all parties occasionally branded their antagonists with the Federalist label or compared their actions to that of the infamous Hartford Convention. The Hartford Convention, symbol and apex of New England Federalism, failed to enact any of its proposed amendments, at least until slavery was abolished and with it slave representation. But that hardly meant it had no impact, for Federalists and their convention stalked American politics long after their fall from the national stage.
Adams, Henry, ed. Documents Relating to New-England Federalism, 1800–1815. Boston, Little, Brown, 1877. Reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1969.
Adams, James Truslow. New England in the Republic, 1776–1850. Boston: Little, Brown, 1926.
Ames, Herman V. The Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States during the First Century of Its History. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897. Reprint, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970.
——, ed. State Documents on Federal Relations: The States and the United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1906. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Banner, James M., Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Dwight, Theodore. History of the Hartford Convention, with a Review of the Policy of the United States Government Which Led to the War of 1812. New York: White, 1833. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Fischer, David Hackett. The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.
Hickey, Donald R. "New England's Defense Problem and the Genesis of the Hartford Convention." New England Quarterly 50 (1977): 587–604.
——. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Mason, Matthew. "'Nothing Is Better Calculated to Excite Divisions': Federalist Agitation against Slave Representation during the War of 1812." New England Quarterly 75 (2002): 531–561.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765–1848. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913.
Stagg, J. C. A. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
The Hartford Convention was a gathering of Federalist Party delegates from five New England states that met in Hartford, Connecticut, between December 15, 1814, and January 5, 1815. Its members convened to discuss their long-held grievances against the policies of the successive Democratic-Republican administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. But its immediate cause was Madison's conduct of the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Delegates also met to propose changes in government policies and structures that would deal with their concerns.
cause of protest
By the summer of 1814, the prosecution of the war with Britain, which had never gone well to begin with, reached its low point. In August as British troops burned the city of Washington, President Madison was forced to flee. Then, having defeated Napoleon in Europe, Britain began to move troops to North America for a major offensive and blockaded the east coast of the United States. In September, the British invaded New York State from the north and occupied much of Maine.
To make matters worse, the federal government was on the edge of bankruptcy. Seeking to prevent smuggling, Congress had enacted a coastal trade embargo, which not only depressed the economy but reduced federal revenues. The administration was also considering nationalizing the state militias, including those of the New England states. New England Federalists believed they had ample grounds to protest policies that put their region's security and interests at stake.
As usual, Massachusetts Federalists took the lead in seeking a political solution to their region's distress. Massachusetts governor Caleb Strong called the General Court (the state's legislature) into special session in early September to consider measures that "the present dangerous state of public affairs may render expedient." Party moderates turned back proposals for extreme actions, such as prohibiting the collection in Massachusetts of federal customs duties. This illegal act would have qualified as nullification—a refusal to implement federal law. Instead, the legislature adopted a call for a meeting of delegates from New England to prepare the region's defense, promote a "radical reform" in the federal Constitution, and take other measures "not repugnant to their obligations as members of the union."
grievances and resolutions
The Hartford Convention, like the earlier Continental Congress, was an extralegal (that is, not regulated by law), not illegal, gathering. It opened with twenty-six delegates, only three of whom, elected by Federalist meetings in Vermont and New Hampshire counties, were popularly elected. The rest were experienced political figures appointed by their state legislatures and disinclined to take radical measures.
Like the meetings of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Hartford Convention's meetings were held in secret, a circumstance that has since kept alive speculation that its members contemplated breaking away from the union. But all evidence points to measured proceedings under the leadership of Massachusetts elder statesman George Cabot. No expressions of disloyalty or treasonous intent mar the convention's official record. The convention's final report, written by Harrison Gray Otis, also of Massachusetts, was moderate. The report assailed conditions that had reduced New England's national influence and rendered the region without security. To substantiate its charges, the report cited the following grievances: the admission of new states in the trans-Appalachian West; the Constitution's three-fifths clause, which gave the South extra representation in Congress; the easy naturalization of immigrants; the administration's patronage policies favoring the South and West; and the conscription of state militias for prosecution of a failing war. The report went on to urge Congress to authorize each state to defend itself and to rebate federal tax revenues to the states for that purpose. Significantly, it did not endorse the nullification of federal laws. Instead, the report argued that such an extreme measure was justifiable, "especially in time of war," only by "absolute necessity." But it is worth noting that the idea was thus not entirely dismissed.
To give teeth to its views, the Convention proposed seven constitutional amendments to address New England's situation. The first, to reduce the South's advantage in Congress, would have counted only the free white population but none of the slaves in apportioning congressional representation and federal direct taxes. Others would have required a two-thirds vote in Congress for the admission of new states, the passage of embargoes, and declarations of war. One would have limited embargoes to sixty days. Another would have barred from Congress and other national offices all nonnative-born citizens (who were thought to favor the opposition party overwhelmingly). And a seventh, aimed at the presidency's "Virginia Dynasty," would have prohibited successive elections of presidents from the same state. Well received by Federalists throughout the nation, the report was officially adopted by the governments of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and conveyed to Washington, D.C.
Yet even as the Convention met, American diplomats were concluding peace with Great Britain at Ghent, Belgium. Then in early January 1815, shortly after the Convention had adjourned, Andrew Jackson's forces decisively defeated British regulars at New Orleans. When Americans learned in mid-February of both events, they ridiculed the Convention's actions. The Federalist Party never recovered.
The Hartford Convention, an institutionalized partisan expression of people's grievances, had, and retains, wide significance. As the first concerted expression of opposition to war under the Constitution (and during the first full-scale war fought under that Constitution), it originated and gave legitimacy to a long American tradition of antiwar sentiment and pressure. It revealed how responsible leaders, during war as well as peace, can steer rebellious inclinations into constitutional channels. It raised serious questions about the responsibility of government to all people, regions, and interests, especially with regard to their military security. Its proposal to end the counting of three-fifths of the South's slaves in apportioning the House of Representatives bore fruit finally with Union victory in the Civil War. On the other hand, and most ominously, the Hartford Convention, even while shying away from any talk or threat of disunion, gave added force to notions of interposition (putting the sovereignty of states ahead of that of the federal government) and nullification. These ideas gained enough currency in the South by 1861 to help justify secession.
Banner, James M., Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
Stagg, J. C. A. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783–1830. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.
James M. Banner, Jr.
HARTFORD CONVENTION. From 15 December 1814 to 5 January 1815, a convention of delegates from throughout New England met at Hartford, Connecticut, to plan regional opposition to the Republican Party's federal policies. Its members hoped to bring an end to a string of defeats for the Federalist Party in general and for New England Federalists in particular. In addition, they sought to gain increased governmental support for a New England destabilized by the ongoing War of 1812.
The convention numbered twenty-six delegates. They were sent by the legislatures of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and by county caucuses in Vermont and New Hampshire. Some radical Massachusetts Federalists had lobbied for such an event since at least 1808, but more moderate men controlled the convention. British military successes in northern New England had prevented a fuller deputation from the newer New England states.
The agrarian, expansionist, anti-British cast of the Republican Virginia Dynasty's policies inured to the detriment of the New England states. Those states' economies relied heavily on foreign trade and an expanding manufacturing sector, and their self-conception was strongly shaped by the Puritan experiments at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay. Unlike Virginia, New England stood in federal politics for hostility to the French Revolution, for foreign trade, and for a stand-pat position on westward expansion.
Following President Thomas Jefferson's 1803 Louisiana Purchase, New Englanders began to fear that a huge new swath of territory would be settled by southerners and fall under permanent Republican control. What might have been a Republican interregnum now appeared to be only the onset of New England's permanent reduction to minority status in the Union. The Jeffersonian embargo on foreign trade in 1807, keystone of Jefferson's second presidential term, did great damage to New England's economy. What made it worse was that the Republicans in Congress, who less than a decade before had complained of the Alien and Sedition Acts' arbitrariness, gave the president extremely broad enforcement powers.
New England opposed the War of 1812, and this opposition went so deep that Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong refused to deploy his state's militia to defend the District of Maine against invasion. Part of the Hartford Convention's purpose, however, was to urge the federal administration to defend New England more vigorously, and in response to Strong's actions, Madison deployed volunteers to counter potential insurrection in Massachusetts. Nonetheless, one Hartford Convention delegate, former Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, expected Union forces to be defeated by the British in Louisiana regardless of what the convention might decide.
The convention met in secret, which aroused great hopes and anxieties, depending on the observer. In the end, it merely called for a second convention in June in case the war had not ended and proposed a set of amendments to the federal Constitution. It also lent its prestige to the notion of interposition, formerly associated primarily with the Republican Party.
On Christmas Eve 1814, in the midst of the convention, the Treaty of Ghent was concluded, and on 8 January 1815, Andrew Jackson's forces won their famous victory at New Orleans. Amidst the paroxysms of patriotism, the Hartford Convention's participants found themselves branded "traitors" and suspected of wanting to break apart the Union, something none of its members had considered in 1814. The Federalist Party, which had played a pivotal role in founding the Republic, was permanently wrecked by the Hartford Convention. By decade's end, it virtually had ceased to exist.
Banner, James M., Jr. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815. New York: Knopf, 1970.
Ben-Atar, Doron, and Barbara B. Oberg, eds. Federalists Reconsidered. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
Dwight, Theodore. History of the Hartford Convention: With a Review of the Policy of the United States Government, Which Led to the War of 1812. New York: N. and J. White; Boston: Russell, Odiorne, 1833.
Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1971.
Rutland, Robert A. The Presidency of James Madison. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.
K. R. ConstantineGutzman