Hartford Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sectional divisions in the United States highlighted by the War of 1812 resulted in proposals by New England Federalists to amend the U.S. Constitution and preserve the union.

Summary of Event

The War of 1812 was never popular among New England Federalists, who called it Mr. Madison’s War. New Englanders as a whole recoiled from the war of conquest preached by southerners and westerners, and Federalists were eager to find fault with the Republicans’ conduct of the war. By the fall of 1814, sectional and political feelings about the war had reached alarming proportions. The U.S. invasions of Canada had been abortive. British troops had burned Washington in August, 1814. The British army occupied eastern Maine, Maine;in War of 1812[War of 1812] and enemy ships hovered about the New England coast. Hartford Convention (1814-1815) Connecticut;Hartford Convention Constitution, U.S.;amendment of Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and James Madison[Madison] Federalist Party;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Federalist Party[Federalist Party] New England;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Hartford Convention[Hartford Convention] [kw]Hartford Convention (Dec. 15, 1814-Jan. 5, 1815) [kw]Convention, Hartford (Dec. 15, 1814-Jan. 5, 1815) Hartford Convention (1814-1815) Connecticut;Hartford Convention Constitution, U.S.;amendment of Madison, James [p]Madison, James;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and James Madison[Madison] Federalist Party;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Federalist Party[Federalist Party] New England;and War of 1812[War of 1812] War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Hartford Convention[Hartford Convention] [g]United States;Dec. 15, 1814-Jan. 5, 1815: Hartford Convention[0740] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 15, 1814-Jan. 5, 1815: Hartford Convention[0740] Cabot, George Lowell, John Otis, Harrison Gray Strong, Caleb

The Madison administration collected war taxes and militia units in New England, but it appeared that a disproportionately small share of money and men was allotted to the defense of that section. New Englanders believed that they were carrying the dual burdens of defending themselves and also supporting the war effort of an incompetent national administration that showed no concern for them. New England had been the most fiercely anti-British part of the new nation during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) American Revolution (1775-1783);New England during . As the momentum of the nation had shifted to the western states, New England had become more conservative in nature, sympathetic to the mercantile and business classes, much as the British had been. Although the New England leaders who opposed the war had so far said or done nothing overtly treasonous, it was suspected by many that they were using the war as an excuse to consider some sort of reunion with Great Britain. Certainly this was what was hoped by the British press and public when they heard news of the Hartford Convention.

The bad situation threatened to become worse; Congress appeared Army, U.S.;conscription Military conscription;U.S. War of 1812 (1812-1814);and conscription[Conscription] to be ready to enact a national conscription act, which presumably would remove even more of New England’s defenders. The U.S. commissioners at Ghent in Belgium were making no progress toward a negotiated peace, nor were they likely to do so as long as the British enjoyed military success. New England, with good reason, was alarmed.

Fear and frustration showed plainly in the results of the elections of 1814. The Federalists gained large majorities in both state and national offices, and the party leadership interpreted its success as a mandate for action against Mr. Madison’s War. The activities of Governor Caleb Strong Strong, Caleb of Massachusetts Massachusetts;and War of 1812[War of 1812] demonstrated how extreme such action might become. In November, 1814, Strong offered thinly veiled hints of a separate peace and an alliance to General Sir John Sherbrooke Sherbrooke, Sir John , the British governor of Nova Scotia. Strong’s overtures to the enemy came to nothing, but they served as an index of the desperation that infected Strong’s section and his party.

This same mood of desperation moved Strong to call the Massachusetts General Court, or legislature, into special session in October, 1814. It responded to the crisis by calling for a convention of delegates from the New England states to meet at Hartford, Connecticut, on December 15. According to Harrison Gray Otis Otis, Harrison Gray , the nephew of Revolutionary War agitator James Otis and the acknowledged author of the convention plan, the delegates were to discuss ways and means of sectional defense and to take steps to revise the U.S. Constitution to accord with sectional interests.

Three of the five New England states heeded the call of Massachusetts. The legislatures of Connecticut Connecticut;and War of 1812[War of 1812] and Rhode Island Rhode Island;and War of 1812[War of 1812] joined the Bay State in selecting delegations. Vermont and New Hampshire took no official action, but delegates chosen by local and county conventions in those states attended the Hartford sessions. Twenty-six men took part in the convention, and for the most part they were of a moderate temper. Extremists such as John Lowell Lowell, John and former secretary of state Timothy Pickering Pickering, Timothy took no part in the proceedings and privately bewailed the convention’s lack of “bold and ardent men.” Well aware that a firm but fine line separated political opposition from treason in wartime, the Hartford delegates sought to play a positive, not negative, role.

This moderation was in part necessitated by the fact that New England, in political terms, was not monolithically Federalist at the time. Although the Federalists controlled the state legislatures of all five extant New England states (Maine Maine;and Massachusetts[Massachusetts] was still a part of Massachusetts at that time), they did so by rather small margins. The national tide that had elected Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to the presidency had managed to elect a substantial minority of Democratic-Republican legislators to the New England state houses, and these, and the constituents they represented, surely would have opposed any more virulent antiwar or anti-Madison rhetoric.

The Hartford Convention, when assembled and organized, conducted most of its business in committees. George Cabot Cabot, George , the leader of the Massachusetts delegation who had explained that one of his objectives was to prevent “hot-heads from getting into mischief,” was probably instrumental in stacking the committees with moderate men. Otis was apparently the guiding spirit of the committees and the author of the report adopted by the convention on January 3, 1815, two days before the the convention closed.

Otis’s Otis, Harrison Gray report, the product of the Hartford Convention, began by stating the mission of the convention, which was to provide for concerted sectional defense and to propose repairs to the Constitution. The report then discussed at length the circumstances that had given rise to the convention. It focused on the disaffection of extremists, and although it opposed radical solutions such as dissolving the union, it plainly implied that the union was in peril. In effect, it contained a mild ultimatum to the Madison administration to listen to the convention and its moderate solutions or be prepared to face the radicals and disunion. There followed a cataloging of the sins of Republican administrations past and present. Finally, the convention offered its solution in the form of a series of seven amendments to the Constitution, requiring that

1. the “three-fifths compromise,” which allowed states to count a portion of their chattel population in determining proportionate representation in Congress and the Electoral College, be abolished

2. there be a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress to admit new states into the union

3. no embargo be imposed for more than sixty days

4. a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress be required to adopt declarations of war

5. a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress be required to adopt declarations of commercial nonintercourse acts

6. naturalized citizens be ineligible for federal office, elective or appointive

7. no president might succeed himself, and that no successive presidents might be from the same state.

These provisions exhibited New England’s antagonism toward southern and western states and forecast the later sectional divisions that eventually were to lead to the Civil War (1861-1865).

The work of the convention reflected a mixture of sectional complaints and political rancor. Its enemies accused the assembly of treason, yet its temper was moderate. Although the convention addressed itself to some legitimate sectional grievances, it lapsed into the rhetoric of narrow partisanship. Perhaps no individual came closer to the truth than John Adams Adams, John (1735-1826) [p]Adams, John;and Hartford Convention[Hartford Convention] , who described the Hartford delegates as “intelligent and honest men who had lost touch with reality.”

Significance

The supreme irony of the Hartford Convention was that even while the convention debated, U.S. arms won a great victory at New Orleans, and Great Britain and the United States made peace at Ghent. By the time representatives carrying the report of the Hartford Convention arrived in Washington, the country knew that peace had come. The Hartford Convention had, therefore, lost its point. Such circumstances blunted New England sectionalism, and the Federalist Party seemed treasonous, ludicrous, or both. Its demise was imminent.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banner, James M. To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970. Places the convention in the context of Federalist Party history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buel, Richard, Jr. America on the Brink: How the Political Struggle Over the War of 1812 Almost Destroyed the Young Republic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Examines the politics surrounding the War of 1812, with a chapter on the Hartford Convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elkins, Stanley M., and Eric McKitrick. The Age of Federalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. A useful discussion of the mentality of Federalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. A reliable summary of the Hartford Convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morison, Samuel Eliot. Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. Presents a mildly sympathetic view of the Hartford Convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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. Places the convention in the context of the War of 1812 and presents a broad political overview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watts, Steven. The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Argues that the Hartford Convention opposed the mainstream of U.S. political development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wills, Garry. A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government. Reprint. 1999. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. A history of political dissent in the United States, with a chapter on the Hartford Convention.

War of 1812

Westward American Migration Begins

Treaty of Ghent Takes Effect

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