Table of Contents
- What Was the Hartford Convention of 1814?
- The Hartford Convention: Background and Context
- What Happened at the Hartford Convention of 1814?
- The Significance of the Hartford Convention
- Lesson Summary
The Hartford Convention of 1814 was a meeting of twenty six Federalists from the New England states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Disgruntled by the political dominance of the southern states and the Democratic-Republican party in the Early National Period, and weary from the costly war with Britain, these men gathered to discuss the collective action that they should take. The debates were secret and covered a variety of potential solutions, ranging from radical to moderate. Ultimately, the convention ended with resolutions that advocated for changes to the federal Constitution and contributed to the fractious political landscape of the period.
By December of 1814, the United States was involved in a costly war with Great Britain. This war, referred to simply as The War of 1812, was largely unpopular with the American people and especially the New England Federalists. A major reason for the war's unpopularity was the fact that it came in the wake of a financial downturn due to the after-effects of policies from Thomas Jefferson's administration. In a response to the British action of impressment (the act claiming a right to stop and search American vessels for potential British deserters), Jefferson signed the Embargo Act of 1807, banning all American shipping to foreign ports. In their efforts to accomplish "peaceable coercion," This act and its successors sacrificed the fragile American economy, significantly affecting the New England shipping and merchant trade in the process.
The early American republic was divided in its politics because of the different economies that emerged in its development. New England, lacking the long growing season and topography to cultivate a cash crop such as tobacco, had created an economy centered on shipping and merchant trade. This economy relied on the shipment of goods to and from New England ports and bound for ports in the South, the West Indies in the Caribbean, and abroad to Europe. Conversely, the Chesapeake and Southern colonies had developed economies based around the cultivation of crops like tobacco and cotton. The stability of these colonies rose and fell with the prices of these crops.
Because of the difference in economy, these regions developed starkly different politics. In New England, wealth was less concentrated, spread to more individuals, and created a middle class of professional merchants. It was relatively low in cost to begin a venture in merchant shipping, especially with the advancement of joint stock ownership of ships and the burgeoning insurance industry, allowing many people of middle class means to be involved in the economy. Because of this, the majority of New Englanders were Federalists and favored strong central government practices that encouraged the unity of the states, promoted the nation's strength as a whole, and regulated banking and trade to favor their economy. For example, Federalists supported protective tariffs, as these tended to favor domestic shipping.
In contrast, the Chesapeake and Southern colonies experienced high levels of wealth concentration as rich land owners used their profits from tobacco to build large plantations, mostly operated via slave or indentured labor. In this consolidation, wealthy planters experienced high levels of control and influence in their local governments as well as a high degree of autonomy to expand their enterprises through land speculation and increased cultivation. In kind, it was common for southern planters to side with Democratic-Republicans and their inclination towards weaker central government, with power localized in states or municipalities, and with policies that favored private property ownership and individual liberties.
By the year 1812, the United States was moving towards war. The main reason driving the tension was the aforementioned British policy of impressment. Because of the harsh life of a maritime sailor, desertion was at an all time high. Many of these deserters found their way into American shipping, an industry that played to their skills but kept them at arms length from the British government. In response, the British felt justified to forcibly halt American ships on the high seas, inspect the crew for harboring deserters, and then if found, impress those individuals back into service. However, this policy was also manipulated to confiscate goods, and even American sailors were unfairly pressed into service in the British navy.
When president James Madison advocated for heightened conflict with Britain in response, the Congressional vote showed the political and economic differences between the regions and parties. The majority of votes favoring war came from members representing states from Pennsylvania southward; the states from New York northward voted in opposition. Because southern economies were so tied to the export of their cash crops, Democratic-Republicans in the south favored military intervention. The north felt differently: even though northern maritime economies were also hurt by British impressment, the policies of the trade Embargo and the Non-Intercourse acts that succeeded it — implemented by Democratic-Republican presidents — had hurt their economy more. Fearing further depression to trade and intercourse, New England Federalists staunchly opposed the war and advocated for its swift end.
By 1814, New England Federalists had tired of the war. Ever defiant and self-interested, many New England merchants continued to sell supplies to the British, Connecticut and Massachusetts refused to provide a militia to the war cause, and by October of that year, Federalists agreed to meet in a secret convention to discuss their independent action.
In December 15th of 1814, while peace negotiations were being worked out between the Americans and the British, delegates from five New England states - all Federalists - decided to convene in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss opposition to the war as well as political action that needed to be taken to ensure the protection of Federalist interests. The intent of the convention was to discuss constitutional amendments that would be proposed to strengthen the power of Federalists and ensure a balance of power. The delegates believed that Democratic-Republicans would be forced to listen to their demands since the war effort was going poorly and the government was losing morale.
When the convention was called, the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Vermont sent delegates. The delegates selected to attend were largely party leaders consisting of members of the national legislature as well as state legislatures, associate justices, and the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court; Daniel Lyman. Other prominent delegates included the convention's president, George Cabot, a prominent businessman and US Senator from Massachusetts, and Harrison Gray Otis, longtime leader for the Federalist party.
The convention met in secret for weeks, leaving no record of floor debates, motions, or votes. Journals and hearsay indicate that the debate ranged from radical to moderate, with the radical wing advocating for full secession of the New England states from the union, and the moderate wing seeking to propose amendments to the Constitution. Radicals saw no way for the Federalist party to maintain power in the current political system, while moderates argued that staying in the union better protected New England's long term interests in trade and protection. Ultimately, the the moderate bloc prevailed and the convention released a final report which listed their grievances with the war and trade relations as well as proposed seven resolutions as amendments to the Constitution. The resolutions were:
Because of the declining war morale, delegates of the convention believed they could get Democratic-Republicans to consider their resolutions. However, shortly after the convention, news of Andrew Jackson's victory in New Orleans and the subsequent peace negotiations reached New England. When word of the Treaty of Ghent reached the members, accusations of treason and secession were directed to the convention and its delegates, proving disastrous for the Federalist party.
Democratic-Republicans wasted no time capitalizing on the political misstep of the Federalists. After immediately withdrawing their resolutions from consideration, Republicans took to the press, highlighting Federalists as anti-union, pro-monarchy, and secessionist in nature. In a famous political cartoon, timid caricatures of prominent delegates can be seen jumping into the open arms of King George as he embraces their needs. The convention was a virtual death blow to the Federalist party, ensuring they would not win popularly in another election.
If attacks from the Democratic-Republicans weren't enough, the Hartford Convention caused divisions within the Federalist party that it would never overcome. Wings of radical members faced more moderate opposition as the party battled the new stigma of disloyalty among its voters. The infighting and waning support became so bad that in the election of 1816 the party could not unite its voters to defeat James Monroe, a Democratic-Republican and the fourth Virginian to hold the presidency. By the following election in 1820, the Federalist party would be nothing, unable to even field a candidate, marking the end of its influence in politics.
The Hartford Convention was a political move from disgruntled members of the Federalist party who opposed the War of 1812 and the policies that had hurt their shipping heavy economy, such as the Embargo Act of 1807. Delegates from five New England states met in a secret convention to determine the independent action they would take in response to the political control of the Democratic-Republicans. After debates that ranged from secession to amendment, the delegates released a report containing seven resolutions that they would put forward as proposals for constitutional amendments, including an end to the Three-Fifths Compromise. When news of Andrew Jackson's victory in New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which marked end of the war and peace with Britain, reached New England shortly after the convention, the delegates found their position an awkward one, having to battle claims of disloyalty and treason. Though little change resulted from it, the Hartford Convention delivered the final political blow to the Federalist party, which was never able to recover any national prominence in politics.
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Demands ranged from secession to changes to the Constitution. Ultimately the report called for 7 amendments to be added to the Constitution.
It was called this because the convention met in Hartford, Connecticut, the capital of the state and a center of Federalist politics.
Though it had little political impact, the Hartford Convention proved to be the final political blow to the Federalist party as they declined in prominence.
The convention was a meeting of New England Federalists to discuss reactions to Democratic-Republican policies and the War of 1812.
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