The Hartford Convention as the
 Embodiment of Federalist New England


The notorious Hartford Convention, held in the latter days of the War of 1812, defines New England Federalism. This is true on two principal levels. First, the Convention represented a last-ditch effort on the part of the region to reclaim its waning political power. As part of the original thirteen colonies, and with Boston at the heart of the American Revolution, New England had enjoyed considerable influence over the burgeoning nation. That sway, however, was in decline almost immediately as the Southern and Western states continued to multiply in number, and in doing so expanded the ranks of the Republican Party. Federalists were largely cooped up in New England, with additional party devotees spread into parts of New York and the Middle-Atlantic states. The Louisiana Purchase was in many ways a death knell to the Federalists, promising further expansion of the nation, and hence a diminution of their own political power.


Immigrant Scottish artist William Charles (1776-1820) created this biting political cartoon titled "Hartford Convention or Leap no Leap" to mock the convention. It depicts Massachusetts radical Timothy Pickering praying at center, Massachusetts pulling Rhode Island and Connecticut toward the jump at left, and King George III of Great Britain encouraging them to jump into his arms. Charles’s cartoon was published at Philadelphia by Samuel Kennedy in 1814. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)


The second issue was the Federalists’ outlook toward Great Britain and their overall opposition to the War of 1812, which had been initiated by James Madison’s Republican administration. Disagreements over foreign policy stretched well back into George Washington’s cabinet and largely subsumed his administration, dividing Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (who favored the English mercantile system) and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (who wanted to avoid a rapid growth of manufacturing and maintained a belief in France as America’s greatest ally). Not only did Federalists oppose the war, but as it continued they grew more and more concerned that New England’s defense needs were not being met by the Republican administration in Washington.1


These factors are instrumental in understanding why 26 delegates from the five New England states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont—the latter two sending delegates from particular counties rather than officially from the states) met from December 15, 1814, through January 5, 1815, at the State House in Hartford, Connecticut. The motivations of the Convention were debated before the delegates ever assembled. Beginning in November, the Connecticut Courant published a series of articles titled, “What is expected of the Convention at Hartford. What it can do and what it ought to do,” announcing, “Our sovereignty is invaded. Our rights are trampled under foot. The Union which is an union of sovereignties has been violated by deserting some of them, while others have been unnecessarily defended, by drawing all the resources from some states which were endangered to defend others which were not. This is not one hundredth part of our wrongs and breaches of the Union.”2


Given Federalist New England’s rocky relationship with Republicans, its opposition to the war, and concerns over the region’s defense, some theorized that the Convention’s primary aim was secession from the Union and a separate peace and trade alliance with Great Britain. President Madison was so concerned with such an outcome that he sent Major Thomas S. Jesup to Hartford to report on the proceedings.3 Federalists insisted early on, and in the Convention’s aftermath, that secession was not its aim. The Connecticut General Assembly appointed its delegates with the express instruction “to do nothing inconsistent with the states obligation to the union.”4 Calvin Goddard, a member of the General Assembly and delegate from Connecticut, wrote emphatically, “I am no rebel—have no scheme of severing the union. I should consider it an evil of no small magnitude if accomplished by a compact in the most peaceable way.”5


The official “Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention,” issued at its conclusion, revealed distinctly Federalist New England’s concerns over the region’s and the party’s waning power since the nation’s inception. Of the four resolutions and seven constitutional amendments proposed by the Convention, most dealt specifically with the balance of sectional power. More specifically, they advocated changing the congressional voting rules to favor the New England minority, insisting that no new states should be admitted without a two-thirds vote; no declarations of war should be made without the same (normal voting required only a simple majority on each); and the presidency should be limited to one term and that no person from the same state (i.e., Virginia) could be elected in succession. All of these, and other demands, represented the Federalists’ attempt to reclaim their diminishing power.6


The Convention report also allayed concerns over potential secession and a separate alliance with England. Federalists made no mention of such radical notions; instead, they reflected on their concerns over New England’s proper defense. Still, the final Convention resolution mixed these two issues with an implied threat, declaring that if the various proposals in the “Report” were not addressed and “peace should not be concluded, and the defence of these states should be neglected, as it has been since the commencement of the war, it will, in the opinion of this convention, be expedient for the legislatures of the several states to appoint delegates to another convention, to meet at Boston . . . with such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require.”7 Critics pondered what those powers and instructions might be.


With the miserable nature of the war—depredations on the New England coast, a failed ground campaign, and the August 1814 burning of the nation’s capitol—Federalists undoubtedly felt confident in making such bold statements. But the unexpected announcement of the Treaty of Ghent (signed on Christmas Eve 1814) and the stunning victory at New Orleans by General Andrew Jackson (January 8, 1815) completely undid the Federalist power gambit and placed the final nail in the party’s coffin. Republicans were able to spin the end of the war into a grand success for the nation and, in the warmth of a patriotic glow, cast Federalists as the ultimate traitors to the American cause. The party had done all it could to thwart the country’s military, voting as a bloc in Congress over 90 percent of the time. First in opposition to the war’s declaration, and then on measures that had to do with raising men and money or restricting trade with the enemy. New England governors refused to allow their militia troops to invade Canada, insisting that they were solely a defensive force, and Federalists in Hartford went so far as passing ordinances that restricted parades or the playing of martial music in order to dampen the spirit for recruitment.8


Such actions, crowned by the “secessionist” plot of the Hartford Convention, sank the already ailing Federalist Party. It never recovered, and to this day modern American political parties heed the sage historical lesson that one can oppose a war, but not the raising or funding of troops. The Hartford Convention has been forever tainted with the rumor of secession, though that was certainly not the initial Federalist goal. Rather, party members hoped to deal with two principle issues: their continuing decline of power in the early years of the new republic, and to voice their stern opposition to the war and the beleaguered position it had left the region in terms of defense.  They succeeded in neither of these goals.

By Dr. Matthew Warshauer
Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT



1. Donald R. Hickey, “New England’s Defense Problem and the Genesis of the Hartford Convention,” New England Quarterly 50, no. 4 (1977): 587-604; Samuel E. Morison, Harrison Gary Otis 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), 354.

2. “What is expected of the Convention at Hartford. What it can do and what it ought to do,” Hartford Courant, November 29, 1814; see additional articles under the same title on December 6 and December 13, 1814.

3. Jack Allen Clark, “Thomas Sidney Jesup: Military Observer at the Hartford Convention,” New England Quarterly 29, no 3 (September 1956): 393-99.  

4. Glenn Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1954), 661.

5. Calvin Goodard to David Daggett, November 1, 1814, in William Buckley, “Letters of a Connecticut Federalist: 1814-1815,” New England Quarterly 13, no 2 (April 1930): 316-31. Theodore Dwight, editor of the Connecticut Mirror, a Federalist paper, stated that “secession was the last thing anyone thought of.”

6. “Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention, 1815,” in Theodore Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention: With a Review of the Policy of the United State Government which led to the War of 1812 (n.p.: N.J. White, 1833).  Also available via the web:

7. See “Report and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention, 1815.”

8. Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 256-57.