Introduction

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.


“From John Adams to William Plumer, 4 December 1814,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified November 26, 2017, https://goo.gl/1FVzET.


Dear Sir

. . . The Convention at Hartford is to resemble the Congress at Vienna; at least as much as an Ignis fatuus1 resembles a Volcano. Already we are informed that Mr. Randolph and Mr. Harper are at New York on their way to the grand Caucus. The Delegates from your Chester will meet Philosophers, Divines, Lawyers, Physicians, Merchants, Farmers, fine Ladies, Pedlars and Beggars, from various parts of the World not excepting Vermont, or Canada, as well as the legislative Sages from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. You see, I cannot write soberly upon this subject. It is ineffably ridiculous. As an electioneering, a canvassing, or more expressively, a parliamenteering intrigue it is a cunning device, but even in this view it is the cunning of the ostrich.

Do they mean to declare New England neutral? New England neutrality has been the cause of the War. New England canvass, New England seamen, have excited British jealousy and alarmed British fears. Britain had rather Spain, France, Holland, or Russia should be neutral, than New England. Britain dreads a neutral more than a belligerent. Canvass and Seamen are the enemies that Britain fears more than all the Armies of Europe.

Do they mean to erect New England into an independent Power?

Let me see! New England is a Nation, a sovereign, a power, at war with Nova Scotia, Canada, fourteen states to the Southward and Westward of her, and Great Britain at the same time. This new state which has taken its equal station among the nations of the earth, sends ambassadors to London and to Washington to make peace and solicit neutrality. What will be their reception? Will they make their public entry like Venetian ambassadors? Their ambassadors are received at St. James’s or Carlton House. They demand neutrality. “What do you mean by Neutrality? Says the British Minister? Do you mean to fish, and carry your fish to France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy, and to the French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and English Islands in the West Indies? Do you mean to trade to China, India, and carry your Cargoes to all Europe and all the World? even to Canada, Nova Scotia, and your own Southern States? or do you mean to unite with us, become loyal Subjects and go to war with all our Enemies”? I wish I could pursue this conference in detail. But forces fail. . . .

Study Questions

A. What are some of the grievances raised by the Hartford Convention against the policies of the national government? What role do they see for the states in evaluating the constitutionality of acts of Congress? In what ways do they attempt to make their feelings known to the new government? How do the critics of the convention see them? How might we explain the tension between these two understandings of the Constitution? Was the Hartford Convention treasonous or not? If the war had continued, what might have been the ramifications of their suggested amendments?

B. How do the concerns of the Hartford Convention delegates shed new light on the issues raised in the Mexican-American War? How might Abraham Lincoln have responded to the Hartford Convention?

C. Would the Hartford Convention have been “legal” under the terms of the National Security Act?

Footnotes

  1. Latin for foolish fire, a phrase used for the fleeting lights sometimes visible at night over marshy ground; hence, something that is misleading.