The Hartford Convention, a gathering of New England Federalists held from December 15, 1814, to January 4, 1815, was the product of hostilities between the two political parties. It attempted to address concerns regarding fears that the federal government, controlled by a majority of southern Democratic-Republicans, was undermining states’ rights, leaving the states questioning their ability to protect their individual interests and authority. These concerns were heightened by the War of 1812, which, many Federalists believed, hurt their economic interests and escalated the distress of New Englanders who feared they were vulnerable to attack by the enemy. The convention failed and the Federalists suffered irreparable damage as Federalism became known as “lacking an extensive nationwide outlook” and out of touch. Some of the convention’s ideas, however, were later revived by the southern states to justify secession.
Hostilities between the two political parties, and the growth of sectionalism, were evident from the start. In the late 1790s, the Federalists controlled the government and used the Alien and Sedition Acts to restrain those who did not support the Federalist ideology. The Democratic-Republicans responded with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions calling the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional and suggesting state nullification. The conflict escalated in 1801 when the Democratic-Republicans gained control of the federal government and began implementing economic policies that Federalists believed favored the South’s economic interests. The Embargo Act of 1807 further convinced Federalists that the federal government was overlooking New England’s interests. Hostilities grew with the War of 1812 as many New England states refused to turn over their militias to federal control; the national government responded by threatening conscription and enlistment of minors with no parental consent. Federalists threatened to nullify laws of this sort and some, such as John Lowell and Tim Pickering, suggested that New England states conclude a peace with Great Britain or secede from the Union. These events led Massachusetts’ Federalists to call a convention of New England states.
The convention consisted of twenty-six delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Moderates such as George Cabot, who presided over the delegation, and Harrison Gray Otis, considered the father of the convention, dominated the meeting and the topics discussed. After three weeks of secret deliberations, during which the idea of secession was considered and rejected, the delegates on January 4, 1815, approved a report censuring the administration of President James Madison and containing proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These proposals were aimed chiefly at strengthening the political influence and securing the economic interests of the North. To counteract the success of Virginia’s presidential candidates, the proposed amendments would have made future presidents ineligible for reelection, and would have prohibited the election of successive presidents from the same state. To increase the congressional influence of the North, the proposals would have abolished the constitutional provision counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of representation and direct taxation. Finally, to protect commercial interests, the amendments would have required a two-thirds vote in Congress to prohibit foreign commerce and to declare war, and would have limited the duration of any embargo to sixty days.
Though the convention dispatched a committee to deliver the report to Washington, D.C., the report was never received. Before the committee arrived, intelligence of the Treaty of Ghent, terminating the War of 1812, and of Andrew Jackson’s brilliant victory against the British at New Orleans destroyed all sympathy for the convention. The Federalists were regarded as reactionary, shortsighted, and disloyal, and the failure of the Hartford Convention deprived the party of credibility and ultimately sealed its demise.
The Democratic-Republicans believed the Hartford Convention to be a treasonous ploy to organize the secession of New England states, while Federalists thought it a way to defend New England physically while protecting their perceived interests and authority. The ideas presented at the Hartford Convention ironically advanced Jeffersonian ideologies of state nullification and contradicted the Hamiltonian philosophies of American empire usually endorsed by Federalists. The Hartford Convention continued the debate over nullification begun by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions and promoted the idea of secession, which the southern states used in 1860 to secede from the Union.
James M. Banner, To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789–1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970); Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, 5th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976); Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765–1848: The Urbane Federalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969); and Garry Willis, A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999).
Tory Rutledge and Andy Bardos
Last updated: 2006