Between 15 December 1814 and 5 January 1815, twenty-six Federalist delegates from the New England states met in Hartford, Connecticut, to consider their future as members of the United States. New England Federalists increasingly feared a southern/Republican conspiracy to weaken the northern region and subjugate it to the Republican agenda.
Concerted, forceful action by the New England states seemed imperative. To concerned New England observers, “Mr. Madison’s War” of 1812–1815 and the hardships it imposed on the region demonstrated the extent of anti–New England conspiracy.
By 1814, the scattered calls for a convention of New England states to resist subjugation reached a fever pitch Federalist leaders could no longer ignore. New England fears of conspiracy thus prompted action that in turn engendered Republican fears of Federalist conspiracy to break apart the union.
Sectionalism and Partisanship
Fears of conspiracy grew out of vigorous sectional jealousies and partisan politics. Even before the 1787 Constitutional Convention, political leaders and observers had noted the differences of climate, geography, economy, religion, and custom that differentiated New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the South, and the West from each other.
The interests of one region often conflicted with those of the others, and ratification of the 1787 Constitution in no way dispelled perceptions of regional incompatibility. Throughout the decades of the early Republic, any attempt to enhance the interests of one region usually brought accusations from other regions of conspiracy to strengthen one part of the country at the others’ expense.
Adding to the sectional tension, partisan politics quickly emerged during George Washington’s presidency and intensified under his successors. In the new system of government, political opposition had not yet gained legitimacy and was seen as conspiratorial by definition. The Federalist Party, based in New York and New England, supported Alexander Hamilton’s program of economic and commercial development and his pro-British, elitist attitudes.
Republicans, led by Virginians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred French friendship, and advocated agricultural individualism and the democratization of politics. Federalists, the party in power under Washington and Adams, feared that Republicans would gain ascendancy in the state and federal elections of 1800.
In an attempt to suppress “treasonous” Republicans, Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In turn Republicans, who perceived Federalists as the true conspirators, responded with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that labeled the acts unconstitutional.
Jefferson’s election in 1800 and other Republican victories reversed the parties’ political fortunes, putting Federalists on the defensive. Shrinking to a political minority, New England Federalists perceived even more dangerous conspiratorial designs by the opposition.
Foreign affairs only exacerbated the sectional and partisan disputes. As warfare between France and Great Britain resumed in the first decade of the nineteenth century, both sides preyed upon U.S. shipping to prevent New World resources from reaching each other. Jefferson and his successor, Madison, attempted to coerce the combatants into respecting U.S. neutrality by denying them the advantages of U.S. trade until they ceased harassment of U.S. ships.
Their trade embargoes, however, greatly curtailed economic activity in New England, which had always relied on its commercial relationships, especially with Britain. It seemed to New Englanders that the southern, Republican conspiracy to weaken their region and party was rapidly gathering momentum.
The War of 1812 and the Hartford Convention
To many New England Federalists, the decision in 1812 to go to war with their primary trading partner, Britain, instead of France, seemed arbitrary and discriminatory. They viewed the war as much more than the Republicans’ callous disregard for New England interests.
Already becoming a minority in the federal government, due to expansion in the southwest and the three-fifths clause of the Constitution that used slave population to increase southern representation in Congress, New England states feared that the South would subjugate their interests to enhance its own.
With Madison’s election in 1808 and his continuation of Jefferson’s policies, many New Englanders, unable to repeal Jefferson’s embargo due to their diminished proportion in Congress, believed they were being increasingly subjected to the “Virginia interest.”
Sporadic calls for a convention of New England states began well before the outbreak of war. By late 1814, with yet another embargo in place and the British threatening the northeastern region, the state governments of New England could no longer resist constituent pressure and, led by Massachusetts, scheduled a convention for that winter.
The moderate Federalist Party leadership intended the convention as a forceful means of petitioning the federal government and an attempt to contain more radical Federalist sentiment. But when Federalists demanded constitutional reform to protect their beleaguered region, Republicans and their Virginian party leadership perceived an attempt to break up the union.
Just as New Englanders feared a conspiracy to subjugate them to southern interests, southerners saw the Hartford Convention as a vehicle for New England secession. As early as 1809 inconclusive evidence linked New England Federalists to a British plot to separate and perhaps retake the region.
Since Jefferson’s election in 1800, the hard-core Federalist Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts had periodically advocated a separate New England confederacy. And, while Federalist leadership proclaimed their unionist sentiment and moderate intentions, the popular mood in New England tended toward radicalism, and scattered but insistent calls for a separate peace with Britain or outright secession fed southern fears of disunionist conspiracy.
In actuality, the convention held to a moderate course. The twenty-six delegates came from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, two individual New Hampshire counties, and one county of Vermont. Their final report highlighted the need for the region’s defense, criticized the developments that had reduced its influence in the federal government, and suggested correctives for the situation.
The convention proposed seven constitutional amendments that included abolition of the three-fifths clause, raising the voting majority necessary to admit new states to two-thirds, limits on the federal government’s war and embargo powers, and an injunction against successive presidents from the same state.
Despite the moderate aims of the convention, Federalists could not shake their reputation as secessionists, and amidst the nationalism that swelled after Andrew Jackson’s decisive victory at New Orleans, Federalist influence outside the state of Massachusetts evaporated.
The Federalist proposals ultimately came to nothing, and contrary to its detractors’ assertions, the Hartford Convention did not further disunionist conspiracy but rather diffused and contained secessionist sentiment. However, it also demonstrated the depth of suspicion of both New Englanders and southern Republicans that the other was conspiring against them.