Historians often bring up the topic of secession in relation to the US Civil War. Decades before, the certain states also discussed the topic, but this time for entirely different reasons. Just what was the purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention and what did it have to do with secession?
The Hartford Convention was a secret meeting held in 1814 between twenty-six New England Federalist delegates. These men represented their states and were extremely unsatisfied with the War of 1812 and President James Madison’s policies.
Radical Federalists called for secession from the Union and for the New England states to form their own confederacy and negotiate a separate peace with Great Britain. In fact, governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts did send emissaries to the king to inquire about such a possibility.
When the federal government quarreled with the New England states over military leadership, Madison pulled federal funding. The government left the states to cover the costs of their own defense—no small sum at the time.
Dissatisfaction was so widespread that the moderate wing of the Federalist leaders finally agreed something must be done.
The result was the secretive Hartford Convention of 1814 where delegates met to decide the fate of the New England states and propose constitutional amendments that would be more favorable towards the north.
Although no formal secession was proposed, dangled at the end of their resolutions was the implicit threat that should these requests be ignored, another convention may be called to discuss further action.
The War of 1812 and New England’s Grievances
The War of 1812 was an unpopular war, especially in the New England states. Though Congress voted to declare war against Great Britain in 1812, it was hardly unanimous.
In fact, the vote was strictly along party lines with Jeffersonian Democrats all voting for the war in a show of unity with Madison’s June 1st war message. Not a single Federalist member of Congress voted in favor of war.
It is for this reason that opponents of the war declared the War of 1812 to be “Mr. Madison’s War.”
Federalist resistance to Madison and the war dated back decades to the new Constitution (backed by the Federalist Papers) and highlighted in Jay’s Treaty of 1794. Simply put, the Federalists favored closer relations with Great Britain while the Democratic-Republicans favored closer ties with France.
The New England commercial- and trade-based economy was devastated by the Embargo Act of 1807, and leaders knew war with Britain would be disastrous for their states.
They opposed the war so much that the governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island refused to comply with Madison’s demands to send militia units to support the war. The governors disliked the idea of their militia troops serving under federal military leaders and the potential of them being sent off far away.
The invasion of British-held Canada at the beginning of the war did little to allay New England’s fears.
As the war dragged on with no resolution in sight, a new fear arose: a British invasion of New England. The British defeat of France in the Napoleonic Wars in the spring of 1814 freed additional British troops for duty in the Americas.
An attack on Boston seemed imminent.
What Was the Purpose of the Hartford Convention?
The stated purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention was to coordinate the mutual defense of New England and to discuss grievances towards the federal government. The Federalist dominated states disagreed with the War of 1812 and wished to enact constitutional reforms.1
Fortunately, an attack on Boston never materialized, but preparations for New England’s defense further heightened the rift between New England and the federal government. Ultimately, the growing rift between New England and the federal government was the primary purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention.
The New England militia were some of the best-trained and equipped militia units in the United States at the time. As the New England governors rarely complied with federal demands for the militia units to serve under federal military leaders, President Madison pulled federal funding for the defense of New England.
This meant that the states had to fund their own militia units and defend the excessively long New England coastline against British raids and attacks. The cost was staggering at the time, and one the states could ill afford.
New taxes were out of the question as Madison’s trade embargo threw the region into a massive depression and the federal tax burden was already heavy on the citizens.
The lack of support caused the New England states to feel abandoned by the federal government. While moderates in the Federalist party had ignored pressure from the radical members thus far, it was clear that something had to be done.
In response to the impending war crisis, Massachusetts Federalist party leaders called for a convention at Hartford, Connecticut in late 1814. Massachusetts extended the invitation to the other New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Connecticut and Rhode Island accepted the invitation and sent seven and four delegates respectively. New Hampshire and Vermont both declined the invitation, though individual counties in the states voted to send their own delegates. Massachusetts, as the largest state in the region, sent the most delegates with twelve.
The Hartford Convention Resolutions
The Federalist leaders at the 1814 Hartford Convention went to great lengths to avoid secession as the main topic. The Massachusetts legislature specifically did not select popular radicals that were in favor of secession as delegates to the convention.
The Hartford Convention instead was to mainly focus on the coordinated defense of New England, with lesser discussions on constitutional reforms. The convention’s aims reversed priorities upon the news that Great Britain and the United States were close to peace terms on December 1st.
Even though peace was close, the New England delegates nevertheless met for the convention in Hartford from December 15, 1814 to January 5, 1815. No one knows for certain what exactly the members discussed.
The meetings were held behind closed doors and delegates were sworn to secrecy over the topics of discussion. Delegates took no notes, unlike at other high profile conventions of the time.
President Madison heard word that Federalist leaders were meeting in secret and grew worried over the threat of secession or a separate peace with Britain. To learn more Madison sent a federal officer2 to Hartford to gather information regarding the purposes and intent of the convention.
While the threat of secession lingered, the final resolutions given by the Hartford Convention failed to mention secession at all.
The resolutions of the delegates instead focused on constitutional reform aimed at giving more power to the Federalist party. The resolutions proposed were as follows:3
- Two-thirds of both houses of Congress must concur before new states can be admitted to the Union.
- Congress cannot enact any trade embargo lasting more than sixty days. Congress also cannot prohibit trade between the United States and any foreign nation without two-thirds concurrence of both houses.
- The President can only have one term in office, and cannot be from the same state successively.
- Congress cannot declare war without the consent of two-thirds of both houses.
- Revising the method of apportioning representatives to only include the number of free persons in a state, thus abolishing the three-fifths compromise.
How did the Hartford Convention End the Federalist Party?
Although Federalist party leaders were satisfied with the outcome of the convention and hoped for progress to be made with the federal government, the Hartford Convention would ultimately lead to the downfall of the Federalist Party.4
Just days after the 1814 Hartford convention ended, Andrew Jackson decisively won at the important 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The victory spurred a wave of patriotism throughout the United States leading to the Era of Good Feelings and citizens viewed those with anti-war stances as unpatriotic.
In the weeks following New Orleans, news finally reached the United States that peace terms had arrived with the significant Treaty of Ghent. With the war over, Congress sent the militias home and trade resumed.
The secretive nature of the convention proved to be the downfall of the Federalists. Their opponents claimed that the Federalists were traitors to the Union and favored secession.
Public opinion began to turn against the Federalists. The widespread patriotic fervor that gripped the nation following the War of 1812 was a positive boon for Democratic-Republicans as they were able to reach out and bring even more people into the party.
While the purpose of the 1814 Hartford Convention was supposed to bring a solution for the Federalists to return to power, it proved to be their downfall. They would lose the following two elections to James Monroe and in the election of 1824, they failed to run any candidate.
Congress never voted up nor entertained any of the resolutions from the Hartford Convention. Its legacy is one of traitorous intent, despite the lack of justification otherwise.
To read more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Hickey, Donald R. “New England’s Defense Problem and the Genesis of the Hartford Convention.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 4, 1977, pp. 587–604. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/364248.
2) Clarke, Jack Alden. “Thomas Sydney Jesup: Military Observer at the Hartford Convention.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 3, 1956, pp. 393–399. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/363016.
4) Mason, Matthew. “‘Nothing Is Better Calculated to Excite Divisions’: Federalist Agitation against Slave Representation during the War of 1812.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 75, no. 4, 2002, pp. 531–561. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1559859.