The Origin of the Hartford Convention

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The trade embargoes put into place by Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in an effort to keep the United States out of the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain were particularly unpopular with the largely mercantile population of the New England states whose economic vitality depended largely upon international commerce. Madison’s decision to declare war on Great Britain in June 1812, although intended as a defense of American shipping and sailors being targeted by British warships, was similarly unpopular in the region. Indeed, the governors of the New England states largely refused Madison’s request to nationalize the state militia, on the grounds that it was an unconstitutional imposition on their right to defend their own borders and interests. Madison’s subsequent failure to prevent the British from blockading New England’s ports only exacerbated the political tensions.

By late 1814, the situation had become so dire that a group of wealthy New England Federalists, led by Joseph Lyman, and others from Massachusetts felt justified in enjoining their state legislatures to call a regional convention to organize a formal protest of the administration’s war policy. Held in Hartford, Connecticut, from December 15, 1814 – January 5, 1815, the convention garnered significant attention both prior to and during its sessions. To many observers, the convention seemed poised on the very edge of treason, as in the cartoon by William Charles, which depicts representatives of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island (the three New England States who dominated the Hartford Convention) poised on the edge of a cliff, indecisively looking toward the open arms of England’s King George III.

The delegates to the convention held their meetings in such complete secrecy that no record of any speeches given or motions discussed on the floor survives. At the conclusion of their gathering, they did pass a series of resolutions that they intended to present to Congress in the spring of 1815. The urgency of the convention’s concerns was dissipated, however, when news reached the United States that the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed in late December 1814. Their agenda rapidly faded into relative oblivion, to be remembered primarily as a specter of the dangers of rampant regionalism.

Noah Webster, “Origin of the Hartford Convention in 1814,” in A Collection of Papers on Political, Literary, and Moral Subjects (Tappan and Dennett, Boston: 1843), 311-315. Noah Webster (1758–1843) was a lexicographer, educator, writer, and politician.

Few transactions of the federalists, during the early periods of our government, excited so much the angry passions of their opposers, as the Hartford Convention (so called), during the presidency of Mr. Madison. As I was present at the first meeting of the gentlemen who suggested such a convention; as I was a member of the House of Representatives in Massachusetts when the resolve was passed for appointing the delegates, and advocated that resolve; and further, as I have copies of the documents, which no other person may have preserved, it seems to be incumbent on me to present to the public the real facts in regard to the origin of the measure, which have been falsified and misrepresented.

After the war of 1812 had continued two years, our public affairs were reduced to a deplorable condition. The troops of the United States, intended for defending our sea-coast, had been withdrawn to carry on the war in Canada; a British squadron was stationed in the Sound1 to prevent the escape of a frigate from the harbor of New London, and to intercept our coasting trade; one town in Maine was in possession of the British force; the banks south of New England had all suspended the payment of specie; our shipping lay in our harbors embargoed, dismantled, and perishing; the treasury of the United States was exhausted to the last cent; and a general gloom was spread over the country.

In this condition of affairs, a number of gentlemen in Northampton in Massachusetts, after consultation, determined to invite some of the principal inhabitants of the three counties on the river, formerly composing the old county of Hamilton, to meet and consider whether any measures could be taken to arrest the continuance of the war, and provide for the public safety. In pursuance of this determination, a circular letter was addressed to several gentlemen in the three counties, requesting them to meet at Northampton. The following is a copy of the letter:

Northampton, January 5, 1814

Sir –

In consequence of the alarming state of our public affairs, and the doubts which have existed, as to the correct course to be pursued by the friends of peace, it has been thought advisable by a number of gentlemen in the vicinity, who have conversed together upon the subject, that a meeting should be called of some few of the most discreet and intelligent inhabitants of the old country of Hampshire, for the purpose of a free and dispassionate discussion touching our public concerns. . . .

We have therefore ventured to propose that it should be held at Col. Chapman’s in this town, on Wednesday, the nineteenth day of January current, at 12 o’clock in the forenoon, and earnestly request your attendance at the above time and place, for the purpose before stated.

With much respect, I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Joseph Lyman

In compliance with the request in this letter, several gentlemen met at Northampton, on the day appointed, and after a free conversation on the subject of public affairs, agreed to send to the several towns in the three counties on the river, the following circular address.

Sir –

The multiplied evils in which the United States have been involved by the measures of the late and present administration, are subjects of general complaint, and in the opinion of our wisest statesmen, call for some effectual remedy. His excellency, the governor of the commonwealth, in his address to the General Court,1 at the last and present session, has stated, in temperate but clear and decided language, his opinion of the injustice of the present war, and intimated that measures ought to be adopted by the legislature to bring it to a speedy close. He also calls the attention of the legislature to some measures of the general government, which are believed to be unconstitutional. In all the measures of the general government, the people of the United States have a common concern; but there are some laws and regulations which call more particularly for the attention of the northern states, and are deeply interesting to the peoples of this commonwealth. Feeling this interest, as it respects the present and future generations, a number of gentlemen from various towns in the old country of Hampshire, have met and conferred on the subject, and upon full conviction that the evils we suffer are not wholly of a temporary nature, springing from the war, but some of them of a permanent character, resulting from a perverse construction of the constitution of the United States, we have thought it a duty we owe to our country, to invite the attention of the good people of the counties of Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin, to the radical causes of these evils.

We know indeed that a negotiation for peace has been recently set on foot, and peace will remove many public evils. It is an event we ardently desire. But when we consider how often the people of the country have been disappointed in their expectations of peace, and of wise measures; and when we consider the terms which our administration has hitherto demanded, some of which it is certain cannot be obtained, and some of which, in the opinion of able statesmen, ought not to be insisted on, we confess our hopes of a speedy peace are not very sanguine.

But still, a very serious question occurs, whether without an amendment of the federal constitution, the northern and commercial states can enjoy the advantages to which their wealth, strength, and white population justly entitle them. By means of the representation of slaves, the southern states have an influence in our national councils, altogether disproportionate to their wealth, strength, and resources; and we presume it to be a fact capable of demonstration, that for about twenty years past, the United States have been governed by a representation of about two fifths of the actual property of the country.

In addition to this, the creation of new states in the south, and out of the original limits of the United States, has increased the southern interest, which has appeared so hostile to the peace and commercial prosperity of the northern states. This power, assumed by Congress, of bringing into the Union new states, at the time of the federal compact, is deemed arbitrary, unjust, and dangerous, and a direct infringement of the constitution. This is a power which may hereafter be extended, and the evil will not cease with the establishment of peace. We would ask then, ought the northern states to acquiesce in the exercise of this power? To what consequences would it lead? How can the people of the northern states answer to themselves and to their posterity, for an acquiescence in the exercise of this power, that augments an influence already destructive of our prosperity, and will, in time, annihilate the best interests of the northern people?

There are other measures of the general government, which, we apprehend, ought to excite serious alarm. The power assumed to lay a permanent embargo appears not to be constitutional, but an encroachment on the rights of our citizens, which calls for decided opposition. It is a power, we believe, never before exercised by a commercial nation; and how can the northern states, which are habitually commercial, and whose active foreign trade is so necessarily connected with the interest of farmer and mechanic, sleep in tranquility under such a violent infringement of their rights? But this is not all. The late act imposing an embargo, is subversive of the first principles of civil liberty. The trade coast-wise between different ports in the same state, is arbitrarily and unconstitutionally prohibited; and the subordinate officers of government are vested with powers altogether inconsistent with our republican institutions. It arms the President and his agents with complete control of persons and property, and authorizes the employment of military force to carry its extraordinary provisions into execution.

We forbear to enumerate all the measures of the federal government, which we consider as violations of the constitution, and encroachments upon the rights of the people, and which bear particularly hard upon the commercial people of the north. But we would invite our fellow citizens to consider whether peace will remedy our public evils, without some amendments of the constitution, which shall secure to the northern states their due weight and influence in our national councils.

The northern states acceded to the representation of slaves as a matter of compromise, upon the express stipulation in the constitution that they should be protected in the enjoyment of their commercial rights. These stipulations have been repeatedly violated; and it cannot be expected that the northern states should be willing to bear their proportion of the burdens of the federal government without enjoying the benefits stipulated.

If our fellow citizens should concur with us in opinion, we would suggest whether it would not be expedient for the people in town meetings, to address memorials to the General Court, at their present session petitioning that honorable body to propose a convention of all the northern and commercial states, by delegates to be appointed by their respective legislatures, to consult upon measures in concert, for procuring such alterations in the federal constitution, as will give to the northern states a due proportion of representation, and secure them from the future exercise of such powers injurious to their commercial interests; or if the General Court shall see fit, that they should pursue such other course as they, in their wisdom, shall deem best calculated to effect the objects.

The measure is of such magnitude that we apprehend a concert of states will be useful, and even necessary to procure the amendments proposed; and should the people of the several states concur in this opinion, it would be expedient to act on the subject without delay.

We request you, sir, to consult with your friends on the subject, and if it should be thought advisable, to lay this communication before the people of your town. In behalf, and by direction of the gentlemen assembled,

Joseph Lyman, Chairman

In compliance with the request and suggestions in this circular, many town meetings were held, and with great unanimity addresses and memorials were voted to be presented to the General Court, stating the sufferings of the country in consequence of the embargo, the war, and arbitrary restrictions on our coasting trade, with the violations of our constitutional rights, and requesting the legislature to take measures for obtaining redress, either by a convention of delegates from the northern and commercial states, or by such other measures as they should judge to be expedient.

These addresses and memorials were transmitted to the General Court, then in session; but as commissioners had been sent to Europe for the purpose of negotiating a treaty of peace, it was judged advisable not to have any action upon them, until the result of the negotiation should be known. But during the following summer, no news of peace arrived; and the distresses of the country increasing, and the sea-coast remaining defenseless, Governor Strong summoned a special meeting of the legislature in October, in which the petitions of the towns were taken into consideration, and resolve was passed, appointing delegates to a convention to be held in Hartford. The subsequent history of that convention is known by their report.2

This measure of resorting to a convention for the purpose of arresting the evils of a bad administration, roused the jealousy of the advocates of the war, and called forth the bitterest invectives. The convention was represented as a treasonable combination, originating in Boston, for the purpose of dissolving the Union. But citizens of Boston had no concern in originating the proposal for a convention; it was wholly the project of the people in old Hampshire County; as respectable and patriotic republicans as ever trod the soil of a free country. The citizens who first assembled in Northampton, convened under the authority of the bill of rights which declares, that the people have a right to meet in a peaceable manner and consult for the public safety. The citizens had the same right then to meet in convention, as they have now; the distresses of the country demanded extraordinary measures for redress; the thought of dissolving the Union never entered the head of any of the projectors, or of the members of the convention; the gentlemen who composed it, for talents and patriotism, have never been surpassed by any assembly in the United States; and beyond a question, the appointment of the Hartford Convention had a very favorable effect in hastening the conclusion of a treaty of peace.

All reports which have been circulated respecting the evil designs of that convention, I know to be the foulest misrepresentations. . . .

  1. 1. the Long Island Sound, a body of water between Connecticut, Rhode Island and Long Island, New York
  2. 2. The Massachusetts General Court is the state legislature.
  3. 3. Report of the Hartford Convention, 1815
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