The Hartford Convention

The War of 1812 had begun as a bitterly-partisan political conflict. The Federalist Party had opposed “Mr Madison’s War” right from the beginning. But in the end, it was the Federalist Party itself which was destroyed by the War.

The Connecticut Old Statehouse

There is no mention anywhere in the US Constitution about “political parties”—they did not exist when the document was ratified in 1789. And in the new country’s first Presidential election, the hero of the Revolutionary War, George Washington, was elected almost unanimously.

But in the wake of independence, the United States split into two political ideologies that were (or at least viewed themselves as) incompatible. This fracture appeared even within President Washington’s own cabinet between Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson wanted the US to remain an agrarian rural society of farmers, in which local and state governments held the power, the national government would be small and weak, and the country would be almost self-contained, with little need for “foreign entanglements” to Europe. Hamilton, on the other hand, saw the US future as an urban and mechanized economy, where industry and commerce, especially between the US and Europe, would fuel a dynamic manufacturing system in which a strong national government would regulate internal and external trade. Over time, as politicians at all levels chose up sides, the two viewpoints became solidified into formal political parties—the Jeffersonian “Democratic-Republican Party” and the Hamiltonian “Federalist Party”.

The ideological argument soon hardened into a bitter hyper-partisan conflict that created lifelong enemies and unending hostility. Both sides came to believe that the other side was not just wrong but malevolently evil and perhaps even treasonous (serving the interests of either France or England), and would lead to the utter destruction of the country if they were allowed to win power. (It is a delusion that, sadly, would periodically come to dominate US history for much of the next two centuries, over a range of different political parties.)

So, when the War of 1812 broke out, it was no surprise that feelings soon became polarized. The Democratic-Republican strongholds in the west and south, who were eager to expand westward, supported the war, while the Federalists in the northeast and along the coast, who had economic ties to England, were bitterly opposed to it. Believing themselves to be saving the country, the Federalists in Congress made every attempt to block the war effort, refusing to vote for appropriations or to release state militia troops for service in the war. The Democratic-Republicans, in turn, accused the Federalists of being traitors who were secretly plotting with the British to undo the Revolution and turn the United States into crown colonies once again. The string of military embarrassments in Canada and elsewhere, meanwhile, strengthened the Federalists in their conviction that not only was the war being lost, but it should not have been fought in the first place. And the Madison Administration had demonstrated that it was not able to protect New England’s vital merchant shipping from the British blockade.

But in their New England stronghold, the Federalists also had other issues that had nothing to do with the war. By 1812 the matter of slavery had already begun to divide north from south, and the northern Federalists resented the fact that the southern states were able to gain extra members of Congress by counting their nonvoting slaves as “population”. Further, using what the Federalists viewed as a dishonestly-skewed system of electoral votes based on population, the south had been able to establish a “Virginia Dynasty”, in which the last two Presidents had come from Virginia and Madison’s Secretary of State, James Monroe (another Virginian), was already being obviously groomed as their successor. From this position of power, the plantation slave-owners in Virginia and the rest of the south were able to safeguard their privileged political position.

Finally, there was the issue of westward expansion. The Louisiana Purchase had doubled the size of the country, but the Federalists realized that every new state that was created in the west would be, by its very nature, agrarian in its economy and isolated from the political center in Washington DC—and thereby would be natural allies for the Democratic-Republican Party. Inevitably, the Federalists would be overwhelmed by an ever larger and larger Congress that would be dominated by the Jeffersonians. The Federalist Party was, they realized, fighting to maintain its very existence.

For years, all of these issues were debated in the newspapers, which were at this time brazenly partisan and openly preached the virtues of one party and the evils of the other. In Federalist papers, there was loose talk of secession—of breaking away from the United States and forming a separate nation allied with England. In Democratic-Republican papers, there was dark talk of “rooting out” the Federalist “treason”.

As the War of 1812 produced one disaster after another and became increasingly unpopular, politicians in the Massachusetts State Legislature saw their chance to act, and resorted to one of the tactics they had used during the American Revolution in 1775. In October 1814, they called for a meeting of Federalist delegates to gather in Connecticut to discuss the various issues that faced the Party and what to do about them.

It was, in effect, a mini-version of the rebel Continental Congress, and when it met in the Statehouse in Hartford CT on December 15 (only a couple dozen delegates attended), it was dubbed the “Hartford Convention”. Rumors abounded, fed by the Democratic-Republican press, that the Convention intended to announce New England’s secession from the Union and a separate peace with Britain, though in reality it had no plans to do so. (Just in case, however, President Madison dispatched Federal troops to Hartford under Major Thomas Jesup, lest they be needed to uphold the Government’s authority and put down “insurrection or rebellion”.)

After three weeks of debate (with the press and public locked outside), the Convention issued a list of draft Constitutional Amendments which, they hoped, would deal with all the issues that concerned them. Among them were proposals to repeal the “Three-Fifths Compromise” and stop counting slaves for the purposes of population, to limit any future Presidents to just one term in office and to forbid successive Presidents from the same state, to necessitate a two-thirds vote from Congress to declare a war, mandate a two-thirds vote of Congress to admit any new states, ban any trade embargo that lasted more than 60 days, and require the national government to use taxes to support local state militias.

Not coincidentally, all of these proposals would strengthen the Federalist Party and its New England base against the Democratic-Republicans. Predictably (though not unreasonably), the Jeffersonians in turn decried the amendments as a naked power grab by the Federalists to prop up their tottering political strength.

It is doubtful that any of the amendments would have passed anyway. But in the end, it was simple timing that killed the Federalist proposals. The draft amendments were announced on January 4, 1815. Then, within a matter of weeks, two pieces of news reached Washington DC: Jackson had crushed the British Army at New Orleans, and the English had signed the Treaty of Ghent and ended the War.

Almost overnight, nearly all of the popular resentments against the War (and against Madison) disappeared. Three years of disastrous failures were now seen as a glorious American victory; American nationalism and patriotism became the order of the day—and those who opposed the war were now viewed as treasonous traitors. Public enthusiasm for the Federalist Party evaporated, and it became reduced to a regional New England rump party which, though still capable of electing state legislators, was virtually absent from national office. Even John Quincy Adams, the son of Federalist stalwart John Adams, would run for President in 1820 as a Democratic-Republican.

Rather than saving the Federalist Party, as it had hoped to do, the Hartford Convention had destroyed it.

Today, the Connecticut Old Statehouse, where the Convention delegates met, is open to the public as a National Historical Site.

2 thoughts on “The Hartford Convention”

  1. So this partisan hatred is nothing new. It actually gives one some hope for the U.S., if it has survived that kind of extreme partisanship in the past.

    1. Yep, hyper-partisan bitterness had always been the normal state of affairs in the US during its history. It was put aside, apparently temporarily, during World War Two and the Cold War, but has now reverted back to its normal condition.

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