"Unconstitutional and treasonable . . . wholly abnormal and wicked." Such was John Quincy Adams' declared opinion of the Hartford Convention. But then John Quincy Adams was a renegade from the Federalist Party and could not escape the suspicion of speaking with strong political bias.
The Hartford Convention was the very natural outcome of the injuries, both real and imaginary, that New England Federalists had suffered at the hands of the Republican majority. More than a decade had passed since the Federalists enjoyed the spoils of a national election; and as new states in the South and West, strongly Republican, were added to the Union, the hope of a Federalist revival grew dimmer and dimmer. Ambitious men like Quincy and Pickering sat in the halls of Congress and saw their opinions ignored while national policies were dictated by the homespun statesmen from the South and West led by the Virginia dynasty.
The New England Federalists opposed the war with all their might, but war was declared. They refused to take an active part in it, declined to lend money to support it, turned their faces against applauding its few heroes; but still the war went on. The last straw was Madison's embargo of December, 1813. Though Jefferson's had done more good to New England than to any other part of the country, the very name embargo was hated in that quarter. And now the poor, hard-pressed little President brought the skeleton out again and rattled it in a desperate effort to put a stop to New England's trading with the enemy.
The embargo was a new challenge to battle, as though one were needed. The New England Federalists promptly accepted it. From 40 town meetings in Massachusetts went out memorials breathing p323 hatred of the administration and a determination to submit no longer to oppression, praying the General Court to take action. Conspicuous among the protests was a circular letter sent out by a group of Federalists in the township of Northampton asking for "some amendments to the Constitution, which shall secure to the Northern States their due weight and influence in our national councils." Even more inflammatory was a memorial from Newbury, in Essex county, Timothy Pickering's stronghold, which declared outright: "We call our State Legislature to protect us in the enjoyment of those privileges to assert which our fathers died, and to defend which we profess ourselves ready to resist unto blood." Northampton and ten other town meetings proposed a convention of the New England States to initiate the reform.
When the General Court met in January repercussions were immediately heard. Senator Blake, of Worcester, rising from his seat, declared frankly that if the Constitution permitted embargoes, then he personally preferred the British constitution, "monarchy and all." With fire in his eye Samuel Fessenden boldly proclaimed that "it is time to take our rights into our own hands." These threats against the national government by the extremists alarmed such moderate Federalists as Harrison Gray Otis, Quincy and James Lloyd. They were not prepared to join forces in open rebellion. They set to work with a will to silence the more violent members and keep the sessions under control and met with such success that incendiary resolutions were defeated and the proposed northern convention was postponed until the people could vote on the proposal.
So unpopular was the embargo that even the Republican candidate for governor, Samuel Dexter, did not dare defend it in the spring election. But his silence was not sufficient to remove the taint that New England attached to all Republicans and the Federalist Caleb Strong was swept into office by a plurality of over 10,000. The Federalist victory in the General Court was equally convincing; 360 members were elected as against only 156 Republicans and all the Federalists were instructed for the convention of the Northern States. At last, realizing the futility of the embargo, but too late to influence the election, Madison brought about its p324 repeal; and with this grievance out of the way and the pressure reduced, the idea of a convention was temporarily put aside.
The summer, however, brought with it new alarms. The battles of Chippawa, Lundy's Lane and Fort Erie were indecisive, the invasion of Canada was definitely halted; and, on the other hand, the British were diverting the war with a will to American soil. Indeed, the battle of Bladensburg, the raid on Washington and the flight of the government gave every indication that the Union was on the point of disruption. On the border Sir George Prevost with his army of British veterans was about to launch an attack by way of Champlain and the coast of Maine was already occupied by the enemy.
Boston itself was threatened with invasion and little or no preparation was made for its defense. The Federalist leaders of the city rather welcomed the arrival of the British, whom they had favored throughout the war. Some of them asserted openly that Boston ought to capitulate and that the British could be counted upon to respect private property. The fate of Alexandria, Virginia, however, revealed that the British were not as particular about private property as the Boston Federalists imagined. The flour, tobacco and other goods belonging to individuals had been seized. When the Bostonians heard of that the instinct of ownership triumphed over the instinct of party politics. At last even the most violent of the Federalists forgot their prejudices, took off their coats and set to work on the city's fortifications. Proud and haughty members of the Suffolk Bar and students from Harvard rubbed shoulders with the masses as the earthworks went up. But the threat did not materialize. The British fleet left Boston in peace and, as the fear of invasion receded, Boston's sense of grievance rose.
The chief bone of contention was the state militia. Upon the threat of invasion Governor Strong called upon the National Government for funds to support the troops. The Secretary of War replied that the support would be forthcoming if the Massachusetts militia were placed under the command of regular officers. This Governor Strong refused to do, fearing that once under Federal control the militia would be marched out of the state and into Canada. The Secretary of War made the same offer to the Governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont; but, like Governor Strong, all of them refused. Such being the case the Secretary of War declined to p325 provide the funds. In the eyes of the Secretary of War his decision was logical enough, but not to the New England States who saw their revenues turned over to the National Government for the maintenance of the troops from other states while, in addition, they were called upon to support their own. To make matters worse even the Boston bankers, when approached, refused to advance the necessary funds.
To meet the emergency Governor Strong summoned the General Court to a special session which convened on October 5. The proposal for a convention was revived and a resolution passed calling for the appointment of 12 delegates from Massachusetts "to meet and confer with Delegates from the other States of New England, or any of them, upon the subjects of their public grievances and concerns, and upon the best means of preserving our resources and the defense against the enemy, and to devise and suggest for adoption by those respective states, such measures as they may deem expedient; and also to take measures, if they shall think proper, for procuring a convention of Delegates from all the United States, in order to revise the Constitution thereof, and more effectually to secure the support and attachment of all the people, by placing all upon a basis of fair representation."
To the other New England States went the invitation of Massachusetts. Connecticut and Rhode Island promptly accepted it and chose their delegates. They had just been aroused by two more irritating proposals of the National Congress; one calling for conscription to fill the meager ranks of the regular army, the other permitting youths of 18 to volunteer without the consent of their parents. Just another wicked scheme on the part of the Southerners and the Westerners to drag the New Englanders into the war and, worse than that, to destroy the very foundation of the American home by encouraging boys to defy the authority of their parents.
But the enthusiasm for a convention halted abruptly. The New Hampshire Legislature was not in session and the governor questioned his authority to send delegates. Governor Chittenden of Vermont was a loyal Federalist, but his spirit had been chastened by the narrow escape at Plattsburg. He had come to the conclusion that, with the British within a few hours' march of his state, this was no time to satisfy party grudges or to engage in domestic squabbles. p326 He declined the invitation for Vermont. But two townships in New Hampshire and one in Vermont took it upon themselves to send delegates. Thus, at the very outset, the Hartford Convention was handicapped. Only three out of the five New England States were fully represented, and in the three states that were represented sentiment in favor of the convention was far from being unanimous.
On December 15 the 26 delegates assembled in the old State House in Hartford, elected George Cabot president and Theodore Dwight secretary; and for three weeks the eyes of the country were on the Connecticut capital. The convention enjoyed all the publicity the press could give it. The Boston Sentinel sounded the Federalist keynote when it presented an address to the delegates in which it declared: "At your hands, therefore, we demand deliverance. New England is unanimous. And we announce our irrevocable decree that the tyrannical oppression of those who at present usurp the power of the Constitution is beyond endurance. And we will resist." Other Federalist newspapers displayed an equally chauvinistic spirit. Some of them warned the President to get himself a swifter horse than he used at Bladensburg if he intended to bend the New England States to his will.
The Republican Press was quite as noisy in exaggerating the treasonable aspect of the assembly. Its editors asserted that the true object of the convention was to set up a New England confederacy. Some of them published addresses begging it not to start a civil war. The National Intelligencer, organ of the administration, recalled that the people, not the states, adopted the Constitution and possessed the sovereign power. The Richmond, Virginia, Inquirer, warming to the subject, expressed its unreserved opinion that "nullification or secession was treason and that the respectable gentlemen assembled at Hartford, if they attempted either course, should be treated as traitors. How embarrassing to both were these declarations of rights to appear some 45 years later!
Stimulated by the press public excitement rose to fever pitch. The war was almost forgotten in the interest over what was taking place at Hartford. Extreme Federalists, whose necks were not at stake, p327 urged the delegates to go the limit. Pickering's idea was to kick the West out of the Union and return to a union of the thirteen original states with New England again holding the balance of power. Gouverneur Morris, in Philadelphia, was enthusiastic over what the convention would achieve. To Pickering, sitting in the Senate in Washington, he wrote, "I care nothing about your actings and doings. Your decree of conscription and your levy of contributions are alike indifferent to one whose eyes are fixed on a Star in the East, which he believes to be the day spring of freedom and glory. The traitors and madmen assembled at Hartford will, I believe, if not too tame and timid, be hailed hereafter as the patriots and sages of their day and generation. May the blessing of God be upon them, to inspire their counsels and prosper their resolutions!"
John Randolph of Roanoke was so concerned over the imminent prospect of civil war that he addressed an open letter to James Lloyd, a moderate Federalist, begging him to intercede before it was too late. Lloyd was quite as alarmed as Randolph. He advised that the Virginians persuade Madison to abdicate and place Rufus King in the Presidency as the best means of saving the Union. The administration itself feared the worst. There were not 500 Federal troops in the whole of New England to suppress a rebellion. The Secretary of War, Mr. Monroe, sent orders to Colonel Thomas S. Jesup, commander of the military district of Connecticut, to keep a sharp lookout on the doings of the convention and to make reports directly to him.
When John Adams, then in his 81st year, heard of Cabot's election, the old fellow exclaimed, "Thank God, thank God! George Cabot's close-buttoned ambition has broke out at last. He wants to be President of New England, Sir!"
But there John Adams was wrong. Cabot's close-buttoned ambition had not "broke out." It was as close-buttoned as ever. It was as close-buttoned as when, a year before, he had retorted to the indefatigable Pickering, "Why can't you and I let the world ruin itself in its own way?" Cabot, most unwillingly, had allowed himself to be drafted for a job which had little appeal. His attitude was made apparent in his reply to a young friend who asked him what he hoped to accomplish at Hartford, "We are going to keep you young hot‑heads from getting into mischief." Sixty‑two years of age and p328 inclined to accept philosophically the trials and tribulations of life, Cabot was hardly the man to lead a successful rebellion.
As for the rest of the delegates, to a man they were typical of the ruling aristocracy of New England. Harrison Gray Otis, who took a leading part in the discussions, was a polished gentleman of 49 and generally acclaimed as the handsomest man of his day. Witty and easy of manner he moved among the delegates like a gracious host. There were Nathan Dane, a prominent citizen of Beverly; Judge Joseph Lyman of Northampton, kindly, dignified, religious; Timothy Bigelow, a leader of the Suffolk Bar, who had been six times speaker of the Massachusetts House. Two delegates were to be more distinguished in history as sires than for their part in the Hartford proceedings. They were Stephen Longfellow, father of the poet, and William Prescott, father of the historian. Others of the Massachusetts delegation were George Bliss, a prominent lawyer; Joshua Thomas and Hodigah Baylies, judges of probate; Daniel Waldo, a wealthy merchant, and Samuel Sumner Wild, a lawyer and politician.
Equally distinguished were the delegates from Connecticut and Rhode Island. Among the former were white-haired Chauncy Goodrich, veteran legislator and lieutenant governor; James Hillhouse, a giant in stature and with the looks and walk of an Indian, who had fought in the Revolution; Zephamiahº Swift, Chief Justice, Governor John Treadwell, Judges Nathaniel Smith and Calvin Goddard, and Roger Minott Sherman, a lawyer and scholar. From Rhode Island came Colonel Samuel Ward, blue-blooded son of the founder of Brown University and himself a wealthy merchant; Daniel Lyman, Chief Justice and the President of the Society of the Cincinnati; Benjamin Hazard, Lyman's son-in‑law, and Edward Manton, a merchant and state senator, who shrank into insignificance in such brilliant company. Benjamin West and Mills Olcott, New Hampshire lawyers, and William Hall, a prominent merchant of Vermont, completed the group. Of them all, Bigelow, a member of the Essex Junto and a disciple of Pickering, and Bliss were the only two who could be classified as extremists. Of the 26 delegates, 22 were college graduates and nine were jurists. Their average age was 52.
These were men of maturity and responsibility, capable no doubt p329 of solemn deliberation and protest; but not the sort to erect barricades, defy authority and risk their property and their necks in an abortive revolt. Observers closest to the scene quickly recognized the convention for what it was. Colonel Jesup lost no time in assuring Secretary Monroe that the people of Connecticut were not prepared for rebellion and that the actions of the convention were no cause for public alarm. John Lowell, a pamphleteer and firebrand, who acted as a mouthpiece for Pickering and who was doing his best to egg on the delegates to extreme measures, soon reported in disgust to his master, "They are not calculated for bold measures." Of Otis in particular, who was looked upon as the leader and archconspirator, he wrote, "Mr. Otis is naturally timid, and frequently wavering — today bold, tomorrow like a hare trembling at every breeze." In short, Lowell declared, he did not know "a single bold and ardent man" among the Massachusetts and Connecticut delegations.
The Hartford Convention might have ceased then and there to be news, and doubtless would quickly have been forgotten, had it not, almost by accident, hit upon the one possible means of redeeming itself. The ruling aristocracy of New England was not accustomed to taking the public into its confidence. It deemed it sufficient to apprise the people of its decisions after its deliberations had been completed. And so, rather as a matter of course, on the afternoon of its first session it adopted a rule to the effect that "The most inviolable secrecy shall be observed by each member of this convention, including the Secretary."
The effect of the resolution was overwhelming. If inviolable secrecy was to be observed, then it was as plain as a pikestaff that there must be goings on that could not bear the light of day. The most vivid imaginations were now free to conjure up and enlarge upon what was taking place behind those closed doors. Nullification, secession, conspiracy, treason and rebellion, insidious plotting, nefarious schemes — any and all of them were now considered not only possible, but probable. Honest men walked in the light of day, conspirators sought the shadows. What good did it do for the delegates later to protest that in the discussions and decisions there was nothing said or done that could not bear the fullest scrutiny? What if Otis declared upon his word of honor that the convention p330 was designed solely to soothe the popular excitement, provide for defense against the British and save the Union? If that was true, then why the secrecy? What if the members, feeling themselves unjustly accused, by common consent allowed the journal of the convention to be published, in the hope of silencing the scandal and the rumors? Ah, but there may have been things both said and done that were too incriminating to be set down in black and white. Thanks to the secrecy resolution, the convention was either high-minded and constructive as Otis claimed, or it was "hideous and wicked" as John Quincy Adams charged. A choice could be made according to a man's political prejudices.
The mature judgment of historians, far removed from the excitement and turmoil of the times, is that in spite of the mystery with which its actions were surrounded the Hartford Convention had nothing to conceal. It sat from December 14, 1814, to January 5, 1815, and on the day after adjournment its report was published in a special edition of the Hartford Courant, and soon was in circulation throughout the country. This report consisted of some 23 closely typed pages and its authorship was attributed to Otis. It began with a summary of the iniquities of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison and of New England's grievances. It declared that there prevailed to no inconsiderable extent a sentiment "that the time for a change [of government] is at hand," that the evils were due to intrinsic and incurable defects in the Constitution, and offered to present some general considerations in the hope of reconciling all to a course of moderation and firmness.
As to a dissolution of the Union, if that were destined then it should "if possible be the work of peaceable times and deliberate consent." Having mentioned possible dissolution to please extremists of the Pickering type, the report then endeavored to reassure the moderates by stating that "the severance of the Union by one or more States, against the will of the rest, and especially in time of war, can be justified only by absolute necessity."
Under the heading of "Dangers and Grievances" the report next dealt with the matter of the proposed conscription bill and the enlistment of minors without the consent of their parents. And here it reached its most extreme position, for it advised the states, assuming the passage of the bills, to devise such measures as would effectually p331 protect their citizens from the operation of the laws. That was pure and unadulterated encouragement to nullification.
For the solution of the militia problem the report suggested that the states be permitted by Congress to assume their own defense, withholding from the national taxes such portion as might be needed for that purpose.
The report finally proposed seven amendments to the Constitution. These were (1) that slave representation be abolished, (2) that a new State could be admitted to the Union only by a concurrence of two‑thirds of the members of both houses of Congress, (3) that embargoes be limited to sixty days, (4) that non‑intercourse acts should require a two‑thirds vote, (5) that no naturalized citizen be eligible to an elective or appointive office under the national government, (6) that a declaration of war should require a two‑thirds vote of both houses of Congress, and (7) that no president should serve more than one term, and that the same State should not provide a President twice in succession.
In other words, the Constitution was to be amended to suit the specific needs of New England with little consideration for the rest of the country. It was an ultimatum to which the rest of the states were hardly likely to consent unless they were in a desperate institution. But the situation was desperate. The war was still in progress and a British army was knocking at the gates of New Orleans with every prospect of getting in. For the satisfaction of these extravagant demands everything depended upon an American defeat in the South and a continuation of the war.
Yet even these proposals were not sufficiently drastic to satisfy the stalwarts of the Essex Junto, the shock troops of the extreme Federalists. Lowell was disappointed because the convention had not declared for New England's neutrality for the rest of the war. Federalist editors complained because it had not assumed that the Union was already dissolved, and that the amendments had been "requested." In the opinion of the editors they should have been demanded. Others noted the omission of a call for a constitutional convention. Gouverneur Morris, who had called the delegates the "Wise Men of the East," now retracted his words, and ridiculed their deliberations in an open letter. The Republicans, on the other hand, were relieved that the report was no worse. "Certain it is, that p332 the proceedings are tempered with more moderation than was to have been expected," admitted the National Intelligencer. If, said the editor, the convention was called to effect separation from the Union, at least the delegates appeared to be going about it in a peaceable way.
Yet in spite of all that had happened in New England, President Madison was still willing to try appeasement. In fact his situation was then so precarious that there were no means of using force. The militia question was the immediate bone of contention. Madison would see what he could do with that. So, on January 27, the President signed an act of Congress that authorized him to accept into the Federal service and pay "any corps of troops, which may have been, or may be raised, organized and officered under the authority of any of the States." These troops, though in the Federal service, were to be employed only in the states in which they were raised or in adjoining states and not elsewhere except with the consent of the executive of the state raising them. The act was no less than a flat surrender by the administration to the Hartford Convention on the most vital grievance of the moment. Well might Otis exclaim that "the egg that was laid in the darkness of the Hartford Convention was hatched by daylight under the wing and incubation of the National Eagle."
But these New England Federalists were meticulous. While the act agreed that the United States Government would foot the bill it did not agree that the states could deduct the expenses from the Federal revenues. The United States Treasury was known to be on the verge of bankruptcy. What guarantee, then, was there that the bill would eventually be met? None. The New Englanders were not satisfied with that. The surrender must be complete. On January 31 Governor Strong appointed three commissioners — Otis, Thomas H. Perkins and William Sullivan — to go to Washington, beard the President in his den and make the "request" for this concession. The gentlemen immediately were dubbed "the three Ambassadors."
A few days later the ambassadors set out on their long journey to the national capital. Otis seems to have had some misgivings about his mission for, in a letter to his wife, he remarked that between New York and Philadelphia the party was followed by a flock of crows and that, whenever the crows came to ground, three of them stood p333 apart from the rest. "These are ill omen'd birds," he wrote, "and in days when augury was in fashion would have been considered as sad precursors of the three ambassadors. What the Blackbirds at Washington will say or do with us remains to be seen."
And evil omens the three black crows proved to be; for, on February 12, soon after the travelers had passed through Philadelphia, they received news of the American victory at New Orleans. This was good fortune that was likely to stiffen the Washington blackbirds. Nevertheless the ambassadors continued on their way and arrived in Georgetown, which boasted a considerably more genteel atmosphere than that of Washington with its official rabble. Georgetown was far more congenial to the delicate sensibilities of the Federalist gentlemen. And there President Madison, emboldened by the victory in New Orleans, allowed them to cool their heels before receiving them. Mr. Monroe, the Secretary of State, they had to confess, treated them with courtesy and civility.
But the worst was yet to come. For, on February 14, Washington received news of the treaty signed at Ghent. At last the war was at an end! And with the end of the war came an abrupt end to the mission of the three ambassadors. Payment of militia in the national service ceased to be an issue. So it came about that the three haughty ambassadors who had gone to deliver terms of surrender to the President of the United States were left dangling in air and looking exceedingly foolish. So, too, did the rest of the Federalists who had taken part in the Hartford Convention.
The Republican press and Republican wits did little to relieve their adversaries of their embarrassment. The joke was much too good for the country to miss. In cartoons, verse and editorials the Federalists came in for lampooning and satire that set the nation laughing. The best epitaph of the Hartford Convention appeared in Henry Wheaton's New York National Advocate:
"Three well looking, responsible men, who appeared to be travelling towards Washington, disappeared suddenly from Gadsby's Hotel, in Baltimore, on Monday evening last, and have not since been heard of. They were observed to be very melancholy on hearing the news of peace, and one of them was p334 heard to say, with a great sigh, 'Poor Caleb Strong.' They took with them their saddle-bags, so that no apprehension is entertained of their having an intention to make away with themselves. Whoever will give any information to the Hartford Convention of the fate of these unfortunate and tristful gentlemen by letter (post paid) will confer a favor upon humanity.
"The newspapers, particularly the Federal newspapers, are requested to publish this advertisement in a conspicuous place, and send their bills to the Hartford Convention.
"P.S. One of the gentlemen was called Titus Oates, or some such name."
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