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.


William H. Crawford to Jonathan Fisk, December 8, 1814. 12-08, 1814. Manuscript/Mixed Material, The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://goo.gl/1VwTX7. William H. Crawford (1772–1834) was a U.S. Senator from Georgia, Secretary of War and of the Treasury, Minister to France when he wrote this letter, and a presidential candidate in 1824. Jonathan Fisk (1778–1832) was a senator from New York.


Paris 8th Decre 1814

Dear Sir.

. . . From the letters & News Papers which I have Recd by the Fingal, & the Ajax, public spirit Seems to be good, everywhere, but in old Massachusetts.

The attempt to form a New England confederacy under the pretext, that the general government refuses them protection, when they have labored assiduously to prevent the execution of the measures which were calculated to afford that protection, approaches the confines of treason. The execution of their threat to withhold their taxes, & to apply them for their defense, will be an overt act which will rend the veil which their hypercritical canting has hitherto thrown over their insidious measures. Their mode of calling a convention is certainly irregular & unconstitutional. I do not believe that they will do more than menace. Whilst New York remains sound, the New England states dare not move, even if they were united. The federalism of Connecticut, is constitutional, & will not be seduced by the intentional flattery of selecting one of its towns, for the assembling of this unconstitutional Convention. Independent of the steady habits of Connecticut, it is notorious that the majority in the other States, is a very inconsiderable one, upon general questions – upon the question of separation, or of performing any act which amounts to treason or Rebellion, these majorities would immediately dwindle into contemptible minorities. There is therefore no danger of Rebellion or treason. The Essex Junto1 disappointed in all their schemes of ambition; convinced of their incapacity to carry the people with them in their treasonable views, will not dare to act, but will continue to snarl and shew their teeth.

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. An influential group of Federalists who resided in Massachusetts.