The Hartford Convention Proposed Changes to the Constitution in 1815

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The Hartford Convention

Political cartoon mocking the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815.
Political cartoon mocking the Hartford Convention: New England Federalists are depicted deciding whether to leap into the arms of Britain's King George III. Library of Congress

The Hartford Convention of 1814 was a meeting of New England Federalists who had become opposed to the policies of the federal government. The movement grew out of opposition to the War of 1812, which was generally based in the New England states.

The war, which had been declared by President James Madison, and was often derided as “Mr. Madison’s War,” had been proceeding inconclusively for two years by the time the disenchanted Federalists organized their convention.

American representatives in Europe had been trying to negotiate an end to the war throughout 1814, yet no progress seemed forthcoming. British and American negotiators would eventually agree to the Treaty of Ghent on December 23, 1814. Yet the Hartford Convention had convened a week earlier, with the delegates in attendance having no idea peace was imminent.

The gathering of Federalists in Hartford held secret proceedings, and that later led to rumors and accusations of unpatriotic or even treasonous activity.

The convention is remembered today as one of the first instances of states seeking to split from the Union. But the proposals put forth by the convention did little more than create controversy.

Origin of the Hartford Convention

Because of general opposition to the War of 1812 in Massachusetts, the state government would not place its militia under the control of the U.S. Army, commanded by General Dearborn. As a result, the federal government refused to reimburse Massachusetts for costs incurred defending itself against the British.

The policy set off a firestorm. The Massachusetts legislature issued a report hinting at independent action. And the report also called for a convention of sympathetic states to explore methods of dealing with the crisis.

Calling for such a convention was an implicit threat that New England states might demand considerable changes in the U.S. Constitution, or might even consider withdrawing from the Union.

The letter proposing the convention from the Massachusetts legislature spoke mostly of discussing “means of security and defense.” But it went beyond immediate matters related to the ongoing war, as it also mentioned the issue of slaves in the American South being counted in the census for purposes of representation in Congress. (Counting slaves as three fifths of a person in the Constitution had always been a contentious issue in the North, as it was felt to inflate the power of the southern states.)

Meeting of the Convention at Hartford

The date for the convention was set for December 15, 1814. A total of 26 delegates from five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont — came together at Hartford, Connecticut, a town of about 4,000 inhabitants at the time.

George Cabot, a member of a prominent Massachusetts family, was elected the president of the convention.

The convention decided to hold its meetings in secret, which set off a cascade of rumors. The federal government, hearing gossip about treason being discussed, actually a regiment of soldiers to Hartford, ostensibly to recruit troops. The real reason was to watch the movements of the gathering.

The convention adopted a report on January 3, 1815. The document cited the reasons why the convention had been called. And while it stopped short of calling for the Union to be dissolved, it implied that such an event could happen.

Among the proposals in the document were seven Constitutional amendments, none of which were ever acted upon.

Legacy of the Hartford Convention

Because the convention had seemed to come close to talk of dissolving the Union, it has been cited as the first instance of states threatening to secede from the Union. However, secession was not proposed in the official report of the convention.

The delegates of the convention, before they dispersed on January 5, 1815, voted to keep any record of their meetings and debates secret. That proved to create a problem over time, as the absence of any real record of what had been discussed seemed to inspire rumors about disloyalty or even treason.

The Hartford Convention was thus often condemned. One result of the convention is that it probably hastened the Federalist Party’s slide into irrelevance in American politics. And for years the term “Hartford Convention Federalist” was used as an insult.