Many times you’ll see neoconfederates claim that there was nothing wrong with unilateral secession because “New England” thought it was fine, since, the neoconfederates claim, “New England” threatened to secede at the Hartford Convention.
As with the vast majority of claims by neoconfederates, this has no historical validity. Well, perhaps that’s too harsh. After all, one can find claims in the historical record, by the Federalists’ opponents, that the convention was secessionist in nature. Suffice to say the neoconfederates are wrong, and if they had the most basic of research skills they would know it.
This is the call that went out to the New England states for the Hartford Convention:
“The general objects of the proposed conference are, first, to deliberate upon the dangers to which the eastern section of the Union is exposed by the course of the war, and which there is too much reason to believe will thicken round them in its progress, and to devise, if practicable, means of security and defense which may be consistent with the preservation of their resources from total ruin, and adapted to their local situation, mutual relations and habits, and not repugnant to their obligations as members of the Union. When convened for this object, which admits not of delay, it seems also expedient to submit to their consideration, the inquiry, whether the interests of these states demand that persevering endeavours be used by each of them to procure such amendments, to be effected in the national constitution, as may secure to them equal advantage, and whether, if in their judgment this should be deemed impracticable, under the existing provisions for amending that instrument, an experiment may be made without disadvantage to the nation, for obtaining a convention from all the states in the Union, or such of them as approve of the measure, with a view to obtain such amendment.
“It cannot be necessary to anticipate objections to the measure which may arise from jealousy or fear. This legislature is content, for its justification, to repose on the purity of its own motives, and upon the known attachment of its constituents to the national union, and to the rights and independence of their country.” [John Phillips, President of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Timothy Bigelow, Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to the governors of the New England states, 17 Oct 1814]
Nothing about secession there. In fact, it stresses the opposite. They’re looking to amend the US Constitution.
“The case of the Hartford Convention appears, then, to be summarily as follows:–It was legitimate in its origin, in no respect violating any provisions of the Constitution of the United States, either in its letter or its spirit. The commissions given to the members were scrupulously guarded against any unconstitutional conduct on the part of the Convention, giving them authority only to confer together, and recommend such measures to their principals as they might deem expedient, taking care to govern themselves by a regard to the duties and obligations which the states owed to the United States. The account of their proceedings shows that they punctiliously observed the injunctions contained in their instructions; and the result of their deliberations proves their conduct to have been, in every respect, strictly constitutional.
“Notwithstanding the vast amount of calumny and reproach that has been bestowed upon the Hartford Convention by the ignorant and the worthless, it will not be a hazardous assumption to say, that henceforward no man who justly estimates the value of his character for truth and honesty, and who, of course, means to sustain such a character, will risk his reputation by the repetition of such falsehoods respecting that body, as have heretofore been uttered with impunity. No man, with the facts before him, can do this, without sacrificing all claim to veracity, and, of course, to integrity and honour. Nor will the subterfuge that the journal and report of the Convention do not contain the whole of their proceedings save him from the disgrace of wilfully disregarding the truth. Nearly nineteen years have elapsed since the Convention adjourned, and no proof has been adduced, and nothing nearer truth, than the unsupported assertions of the corrupt journals of political partizans, of any measure being adopted or recommended by the Convention, besides those contained in the journal and the report. If there was any treason, proposed or meditated, against the United States, at the Convention, it must have been hidden in as deep and impenetrable obscurity, as the fabulous secrets of free masonry are said to be buried, otherwise some traces of it would have been discovered and disclosed to the public before this late period. No such discovery having been made, the inference must necessarily be, that no such treasonable practice or intention existed.” [Theodore Dwight, History of the Hartford Convention: With a Review of the Policy of the United States Government Which Led to the War of 1812, pp. 401-403]
Because the Hartford Convention’s proceedings were held in secret, the political enemies of the Federalists charged they were considering secession. This was a false charge.
“The character of the twenty-six delegates at the convention also boded well. George Cabot, Nathan Dane, and [Harrison Gray] Otis headed the Massachusetts delegation; Chauncey Goodrich and James Hillhoun, the Connecticut delegation; and Daniel Lyman and Samuel Ward the Rhode Island delegation. Except for Timothy Bigelow and perhaps one or two others, all the delegates were moderates, hardly the sort to promote violent measures. Radicals like Blake, Quincy, and Fessenden were purposely excluded from the meeting.” [Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, page 275]
The convention, dominated by moderates, had perhaps as many as three radicals. “The only known radical, Bigelow, was given no committee assignments and apparently did not play a major role in the proceedings. Nor was there any sign of disunion.” [Hickey, The War of 1812, p. 277]
“Although the election of 1800 dashed their hopes of constitutional and statutory revision, they persisted throughout the Jeffersonian era in their plans. The Hartford Convention culminated their efforts to gain a hearing for an amendment to prohibit naturalized citizens from holding ‘any civil office’ under national authority. In the convention report which it is generally agreed he wrote, Otis, the undisputed champion of American nativists, attacked ‘the easy admission of naturalized foreigners, to places of trust, honour or profit, operating as an inducement to the malcontent subjects of the old world to come to these States, in quest of executive patronage, and to repay it by an abject devotion to executive measures.'” [James M. Banner, Jr., To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815, p. 98]
Banner tells us it was the radical Federalists who “encouraged secessionist sentiment and countenanced plans for disunion.” [Banner, To the Hartford Convention, p. 141] These people were a distinct minority in New England.
But as we’ve seen, there weren’t more than two or three radicals at the most in the convention. Because of this the convention can’t seriously be characterized as being about secession.
The Hartford Convention was about the grievances New England Federalists had concerning the administration. They drafted a very moderate report that in no way endorsed secession, and there is no evidence a secession proposal would ever have had a chance. To claim it was about secession is a total mischaracterization of the convention.
The Hartford Convention specifically opposed any step that might lead to disunion. The final report of the Hartford Convention, written largely by moderate Harrison G. Otis, suggested seven constitutional amendments to address the complaints of the New England Federalists: 1) A two-thirds vote in Congress to declare war, 2) interdict trade with a foreign nation, or 3) admit new states to the Union; 4) a sixty-day limit on embargoes; 5) an end to counting 3/5 of slaves in apportioning representation in Congress; 6) a ban against naturalized citizens holding Federal office; 7) a provision that would limit presidents to one term and bar the election of a president from the same state twice in succession.
The Report of the Convention can be found on pages 352-379 of Dwight’s book here. Some neoconfederates take one snippet out of context:
“If the Union be destined to dissolution by reason of multiplied abuses of bad administrations, it should, if possible, be the work of peaceable times and deliberate consent. Some new form of confederacy should be substituted among those states which shall intend to maintain a federal relation to each other. Events may prove that the causes of our calamities are deep and permanent. They may be found to proceed, not merely from the blindness of prejudice, pride of opinion, violence of party spirit, or the confusion of the times but they may be traced to implacable combinations of individuals, or of states, to monopolize power and office, and to trample without remorse upon the rights and interests of commercial sections of the Union. Whenever it shall appear that these causes are radical and permanent, a separation, by equitable arrangement, will be preferable to an alliance by constraint, among nominal friends, but real enemies, inflamed by mutual hatred, and jealousy, and, inviting, by intestine divisions contempt and aggression from abroad.”
and declare it to be a threat to unilaterally secede. Those of us who read things in context will know that claim is poppycock. Notice first of all this passage refers to “a separation by equitable arrangement.” That’s not a unilateral secession. Secondly, let’s look at what follows:
“But a severance of the Union by one or more states against the will of the rest, and especially in a time of war, can be justified only by absolute necessity. These are among the principal objections against precipitate measures tending to disunite the states, and when examined in connection with the farewell address of the Father of his country, they must, it is believed, be deemed conclusive.”
So in context, this portion of the report actually is an argument AGAINST disunion, deeming “objections against precipitate measures tending to disunite the states” as “conclusive.” Samuel Eliot Morison describes this as “politely throwing overboard Essex Junto extremism.” [Samuel Eliot Morison, Harrison Gray Otis, 1765-1848: The Urbane Federalist, p. 377]
“Otis always insisted that the Convention was not his baby, but popular in origin and conception, that its objects were to ‘let off steam,’ calm popular indignation, provide for the defense of New England against the British, and save the Union.” [Ibid., p. 353]
“A charter member, as it were, of the Essex Junto, [George] Cabot had so mellowed with years that his presence at Hartford was a guarantee of moderation; when an extremist asked what he expected to accomplish he replied, ‘We are going to keep you young hot-heads from getting into mischief.’ ” [Ibid., p. 359]
Theodore Lyman, a Massachusetts politician, wrote a defense of the Hartford Convention available here. In it, he said, “Now, with the utmost earnestness and sincerity, we ask any candid, honest man, if he believes in his conscience, that these eleven persons above named, were capable of plotting a conspiracy against the national government of exciting to a civil war of leading to a dissolution of the Union of submitting to an allegiance to George the Third ? We ask again, if these very identical persons are not precisely such men as the people and the public, upon all occasions, do honourably and confidently trust and employ ? And for the last time, we ask the candid and honest men of this State, if the people and the public have not from year to year given proof and evidence not to be denied or refuted, that they utterly and totally disregard the numberless misrepresentations and misstatements which violent men have laboured for eight years to cast upon the conduct and characters of these virtuous, upright enlightened, and patriotic individuals ?” [p. 21]
Historian James Banner wrote, “No less a figure than John Quincy Adams later charged that the Hartford Convention was intended by its organizers to incite moderate opinion to support radical, even secessionist, actions. But there is no evidence to sustain this judgment. As the leading convention participants expressed it at the time and later recalled, their sympathies resided with the moderates, and they considered it their most critical task to assuage the more extreme popular temper. Cabot journeyed to Hartford, he said, ‘to allay the ferment and prevent a crisis. … We are going to keep you young hot-heads from getting into mischief.’ ‘The proceedings of the Convention,’ wrote Otis soon after leaving Hartford, ‘are adopted rather to appease than produce excitement.’ The convention call, he later recollected, ‘was the consequence, not the source of a popular sentiment; and it was intended, by those who voted for it, as a safety valve by which the steam arising from the fermentation of the time might escape, not as a boiler in which it should be generated.’
“Nathan Dane shared these views. ‘Somebody must go to prevent mischief,’ he confided on the way to Hartford. And, he wrote afterwards, ‘The fact was, moderate men saw the excitement was going too far and that it was leading to evils far greater than the war itself. … This convention, as intended, moderated and checked an inflamed, growing opposition to the then administration of federal affairs’ which ‘might, in the then violence of party spirit, have in time embarrassed and shaken the Union.’ ” [James M. Banner, Jr., _To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815,_ pp. 331-332]
According to Banner, “No convention member, nor for that matter many reflecting Federalists, ever seriously contemplated disunion as an alternative in 1814.” [Ibid., p. 344]
Other historians have weighed in on this:
“But if disunion was on the minds of some of the Hartford delegates, they left no formal record of it. In fact, Theodore Dwight went to great lengths some nineteen years later when writing his History of the Hartford Convention to stress that secession had not been on anyone’s mind.” [Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, p. 255]
“The convention’s secret proceedings encouraged speculation that the delegates would secede from the union and ally with the British, which would provoke civil war within the union.
“The Madison administration sent Colonel Thomas Sidney Jesup to Hartford, ostensibly to raise recruits but primarily to keep an eye on the convention. If the delegates did seek secession, Jesup was supposed to secure the national arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts, and rally local Republicans to defend the union. To support Jesup, Monroe shifted one thousand troops from the Niagara front east to Greenbush near the Massachusetts line. ‘We should be prepared for all events,’ Jesup agreed.
“But the Federalist delegates were cautious men who settled for half measures.” [Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, p. 415]
“Although the final resolutions were couched in drastic language–‘the time for a change is at hand’–nothing submitted to the convention mentioned breaking away from the United States. The Federalist delegates were arguing that states’ rights extended to matters of defense.” [A. J. Langguth, Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, p. 342]
“But in fact, moderate Federalists led by Harrison Gray Otis dominated the Hartford Convention, and its outcome, when revealed, proved less threatening than the Republicans had feared.” [Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, p. 69]
Harry L. Coles tends to disagree somewhat: “Though the dissolution of the Union ‘should if possible, be the work of peaceable times, and deliberate consent,’ there was the implication that if these amendments were not adopted and if New England’s grievances became permanent, the ultimate solution was secession. Thus the program actually adopted by the Hartford Convention was ‘moderate’ in the sense that it fell short of the program advocated by the Essex Junto and some of the other extremists who were insisting that the Union was already dissolved and that a separate peace with Great Britain should be sought.” [Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812, pp. 245-246] It seems to me that Prof. Coles sees an implication that others, including me, do not see.
Richard Buel writes, “The Hartford Convention was good to its sponsors’ word in avoiding outright attempts at secession. In that sense the meeting could be said, in historian Samuel Eliot Morison’s phrase, to have rallied the extremists to ‘moderation.’ However, it was scarcely less subversive. The convention proceedings, ostentatiously endorsed by the legislatures of Massachusetts and Connecticut, proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution designed to magnify the influence of the ‘commercial states’ in the federal government. It joined these constitutional changes with a thinly disguised threat to conclude a separate peace with Britain if they were rejected.” [Richard Buel Jr., America on the Brink: How the Political Struggle Over the War of 1812 Almost Destroyed the Young Republic, p. 226] Again, Prof. Buel seems to see things others, including me, don’t see in the report or in the proposed amendments.
If anyone tries to tell you the Hartford Convention was a secessionist convention, that “New England,” or even “Massachusetts” threatened secession there, or that the convention discussed secession, don’t believe them. The evidence is strongly against such claims.