The United States was nearly dissolved when the southern states seceded, launching the Civil War. But this was not the first time the Union threatened collapse.
Half a century earlier the Union was nearly split apart when the New England states plotted to break away. The New England secession movement, led mainly by the Federalists, culminated in the Hartford Convention of 1814 which narrowly voted to remain in the United States.
A Series of Outrages
Events leading to the convention began with the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1801. Jefferson was a Virginian with pro-agriculture, pro-expansion, and anti-British sentiments that conflicted with the predominantly pro-manufacturing, anti-expansion, and pro-British sentiments in the New England states. Federalists opposed Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase because they believed that southerners and foreigners would pour onto the new land, thus politically diminishing New England. By 1804, New Englanders began discussing secession. Their argument was essentially the same argument later used by the southern States: if the federal government became too oppressive, the States had the sovereign right to resist the federal power.
Later, in response to collateral damage suffered by the war between Britain and France, President Jefferson enacted a trade embargo that prohibited Americans from trading with either country. The law aimed to deprive Britain and France of American goods, but American markets were also harmed because they lost their major trading partners. The New England economy was especially damaged because of the region’s dependence on trade. Many condemned the law and resorted to smuggling as the flames of secession intensified.
In 1809, Jefferson was succeeded as president by James Madison, another Virginian. Not only did Madison enforce Jefferson’s embargo more stringently, but he initiated the War of 1812 against Britain. Many New England Federalists feared the war would permanently cut them off from British trade, and so many opposed the war. The governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to send state troops to fight the British, and Connecticut denounced Madison’s conscription plan as unconstitutional. When Madison ordered federal troops into New England to quell civil unrest, a convention was called to air grievances against the federal government.
Convention of Grievances
The Hartford Convention opened on December 15, 1814 at the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, and it consisted of 26 delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont (Maine was not yet a State). While many New Englanders advocated secession, the delegates proved more moderate, mainly out of fear that if they voted for secession and New England opted to remain in the Union, their careers would be ruined. So instead of secession the delegates proposed several constitutional amendments aimed to limit federal power, including:
- Requiring a two-thirds vote in Congress to declare war
- Limiting presidents to one term
- Requiring that a succeeding president come from a different state than his predecessor (aimed directly at breaking the Virginia presidential dynasty of Washington, Jefferson and Madison)
In addition, the delegates asserted their sovereignty over unconstitutional federal authority. While the wisdom of secession was debated by the delegates, it was not debated whether or not secession was legal. To the delegates and many other Americans at the time, secession was an inherent State right and an important check on the powers of a potentially despotic federal government. These beliefs were the basis of the southern secession that sparked the Civil War half a century later.
Secession Becomes Treason
By the time the delegates reached Washington to deliver their proposals, the War of 1812 had ended, thus minimizing the importance of the Hartford Convention. Now that the British were no longer an issue, many Americans turned against New England as a hotbed of treason. Although few argued the legality of secession, many felt that by considering secession in a time of war, the New England Federalists were traitors. As a result, the Federalist Party quickly lost popularity and dissolved.
As time went on, more and more Americans began equating secession with treason, even though they were not necessarily one and the same as the founders had interpreted the Constitution. Southerners began embracing the ideals of the Hartford Convention, and northerners began perceiving them as traitors. This sectional difference helped lead to the Lincoln administration’s war against the southern secession, the most terrible war in American history.
- Banner Jr., James M.: To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (New York: Knopf, 1970)
- DiLorenzo, Thomas J.: The Real Lincoln (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003)
- Lyman, Theodore: A Short Account of the Hartford Convention (Boston: O. Everett, 1823)