Today in 1814, delegates from every New England state but Maine (which was still part of Massachusetts) met at the Old State House in Hartford to take action against what they saw as the federal government’s misguided and inept handling of the War of 1812.
While the War of 1812 was officially a war against Great Britain, the young United States was, in reality, fighting on three fronts: to the north against British-held Canada, to the east against Britain and its mighty navy, and to the west against British-allied Native Americans along the American frontier. The New England states were thus threatened by British invasion attempts and coastal harassment on two fronts, in addition to a crippling regional economic downturn caused by embargoes and sanctions enacted under the Democratic-Republican presidential administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Unsurprisingly, the opposition Federalist party felt that, by 1814, it was time for the New England states to gather and discuss their collective grievances against the Madison administration’s handling of the war. So, on December 15, 1814, 26 delegates from across New England met in Hartford to do just that.
As soon as the Hartford Convention was announced, rumors began swirling about the nefarious and possibly secessionist aims of the Federalist delegates, who did themselves no favors by maintaining strict secrecy regarding their closed-door discussions during the three-week event. While pro-Federalist papers like the Connecticut Courant were declaring, “Our [New England] sovereignty is invaded. Our rights are trampled underfoot,” other newspapers outside the Northeast accused the delegates of planning a traitorous coup against the Madison administration, or drafting a plan of secession from the Union. Despite delegates’ vocal denials of such radical plots, the accusations of treasonous behavior stuck. Widely-circulated political cartoons mocked the delegates as self-interested cowards who were willing to leap back into the arms of King George III.
In early January, the Federalist delegates released an official “Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention.” The report contained four resolutions condemning the Madison administration’s handling of the War and advanced a handful of proposed Constitutional amendments favoring the interests of the New England states — amendments like the repeal of the infamous 3/5 clause that inflated the congressional representation of the slaveholding Southern states. Nowhere in the report was there any mention of secession. While the idea was likely broached at the Convention in some capacity (making it the first time secession from the Union was seriously considered in American history), the delegates never officially endorsed it. A clause at the end of the report, however, hinting that another convention might have to be called if New England’s regional concerns were not addressed, left the door to future consideration of secession wide open..
The intrigue and drama generated by the Hartford Convention, however, was short-lived, News about the war-ending Treaty of Ghent and General Andrew Jackson’s rout of British troops at New Orleans spread across the United States in mid-January — at almost the exact time the convention’s report was released. America had suddenly won the War of 1812, it seemed, and the grumbling Federalists looked like fools who had decisively chosen the “wrong” side. Their enemies branded them as traitors and the opprobrium stuck. The Federalist Party never recovered from the blow its reputation suffered after the Hartford Convention, which led to an era of political dominance by the Democratic-Republican party for most of the early 19th century. A major political gamble at the Old State House resulted in a seismic political power shift that reverberated through the country — today in Connecticut history.
Kim Sheridan, “The Hartford Convention,” connecticuthistory.org
Matthew Warshauer, “The ‘Notorious’ Hartford Convention,” Connecticut Explored