Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

Author: James Schouler  | Date: 1815

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Secession Threatened in New England

WHEN the invader appears honest citizens must choose sides. Forced at length to defend their own homes and firesides, Massachusetts and Connecticut now felt the recoil of unpatriotic behavior. Instead of trusting their governors with the local defense as the administration had done with States which upheld the war, the President now insisted upon retaining the exclusive control of military movements. Because Massachusetts and Connecticut had refused to subject their militia to the orders of the War Department, Monroe declined to pay their expenses. The cry was raised by peace men in consequence that the National government had abandoned New England to the common enemy. Upon this false assumption—for false, candor must pronounce it, inasmuch as government was maturing all the while a consistent plan of local defense—the Massachusetts leaders made hasty proclamation that no choice was left between submitting to the enemy, which could not be thought of, and appropriating to the defense of the States the revenues derived from her people, which had hitherto been spent elsewhere. The Massachusetts Legislature appropriated $ 1,000,000 to support a State army of 10,000 men. And Otis, who inspired these measures, brought Massachusetts to the point of instituting a delegate convention of Eastern States—this convention to meet at Hartford. A Hartford convention was no new project to Otis’s own mind.

The day for assembling was fixed at December 15th. Twelve delegates were appointed by the Massachusetts Legislature, men of worth and respectability, chief of whom were Cabot and Otis. In Connecticut, whose Legislature was not slow to denounce Monroe’s conscription plan as barbarous and unconstitutional, a congenial delegation of seven was made up—Goodrich and Hillhouse, hoary men of national renown, at the head. Rhode Island’s Legislature added four more to the list. So deep-rooted, however, was the national distrust of this movement that Vermont and New Hampshire shrank from giving the Convention a public sanction. New Hampshire had a Republican council; while in Vermont the Plattsburg victory stirred the Union spirit; Chittenden himself having changed in official tone after the war became a defensive one. Violent county conventions representing fractions of towns chose, however, three delegates, two in New Hampshire and one in Vermont, whose credentials being accepted by the convention, the whole number of delegates assembled at Hartford was twenty-six.

This Hartford Convention remains famous in American history only as a powerful menstruum in national politics. What its most earnest projectors had hoped for was left but half done; but that half work condemned to political infamy twenty-six gentlemen highly respectable. Lawyers, they were, of State eminence, for the most part, and all of high social character, but inclined, like men of ability more used to courts than conventions, to treat constituencies like clients, and spend great pains over phraseology. Perhaps, indeed, these had been selected purposely to play the lion’s part, that moderate fellow-citizens, Unionists at heart, whose conversion was essential, might not quake at the roar of the Convention….

What bold measures were possible? one may ask. Pickering’s Confederacy of 1804 would have embraced New York, perhaps Pennsylvania. But these Eastern Federalists, with that clannishness at which Hamilton himself had marveled, were now circumscribed within the limits of New England, and of that section, moreover, but three States out of five had delegations at Hartford worthy of the name. The first effort to assemble a New England convention was, we have seen, in 1808-9. The second, if John Quincy Adams may be believed, was in 1812, immediately after the declaration of war against Great Britain, and that project Dexter defeated by a speech in Faneuil Hall. The third, and present, though partially successful, by bringing delegates into conference, was, like the Stamp Act Congress, or the Annapolis Conference of 1786, an instrument necessarily for later and riper designs. The American Confederacy, the American Union, are each the product of begetting conventions; nor without prudence were States now forbidden to enter into agreements or compacts with one another without the consent of Congress. The Hartford Convention may well have justified dire forebodings, for it did not dissolve finally, as a mass-meeting might have done, upon a full report, but contingently adjourned to Boston.

Organized on the appointed day in Hartford, then a town of four thousand inhabitants, by the choice of George Cabot as president, and Theodore Dwight as secretary, the present convention remained in close session for three continuous weeks. Of irregular political assemblies the worst may be suspected when proceedings are conducted in secrecy; and never, certainly, were doors shut more closely upon a delegate, and professedly a popular convention, than upon this one; not even doorkeeper or messenger gaining access to the discussion. Inviolable secrecy was enjoined upon every member, including the secretary, at the first meeting, and once more before they dispersed, notwithstanding the acceptance of their final report. The injunction was never removed. Not before a single State legislature whose sanction of this report was desired, not to any body of those constituents whose votes were indispensable to the ultimate ends, if these ends were legally pursued, was that report elucidated. Four years afterward, when the Hartford Convention and its projectors bent under the full blast of popular displeasure, Cabot delivered to his native State the sealed journal of its proceedings, which had remained in his exclusive custody; but that when opened was found to be a meager sketch of formal proceedings, and no more; making no record of yeas and nays, stating none of the amendments offered to the various reports, attaching the name of no author to a single proposition, in fine, carefully suppressing all means of ascertaining the expression or belief of individual delegates.

Casual letters of contemporaries are preserved sufficient to show that representative Federalists labored with these delegates to procure a separation of the States, but how many more of the same strain President Cabot may have torn up one can only conjecture. That twenty-six public men should have consented to leave no ampler means of vindicating to their own age, and to posterity, themselves and their motives, may evince a noble disinterestedness, sublime confidence in the rectitude of their own intentions, a comforting reliance upon "the Searcher of Hearts," but certainly an astonishing ignorance of human nature in this our inquisitive republic. Assembling amid rumors of treason and the execration of all the country west of the Hudson, its members watched by an army officer who had been conveniently stationed in the vicinity, the Hartford Convention, hardening into stone, preserves for all ages a sphinxlike mystery.

The labors of this convention, whatever they were, ended with a report and resolutions, signed by the delegates present, and adopted on the day before final adjournment. Report and resolutions disappointed, doubtless, both citizens who had wished a new declaration of independence, and citizens who had feared it. Neither Virginia nor Kentucky could, with propriety, condemn the heresies of State sovereignty which supplied the false logic of this report, and an imperfect experience of this Federal Union may excuse in Otis and his associates theoretical errors which Jefferson and Madison while in the opposition had first inculcated. Constitutional amendments were here proposed which, not utterly objectionable under other circumstances, must have been deemed at this time an insult to those officially responsible for the national safety, and only admissible as a humiliation of the majority. It requires little imagination to read, in report and resolutions, a menace to the Union in its hour of tribulation, a demand for the purse and sword, to which only a craven Congress could have yielded, and a threat of local armies which, with the avowed purpose of mutual aid, might in some not remote contingency be turned against foes American not less than British.


RESOLVED, that it be, and hereby is, recommended to the Legislatures of the several States represented in this Convention to adopt all such measures as may be necessary effectually to protect the citizens of said States from the operation and effects of all acts which have been or may be passed by the Congress of the United States, which shall contain provisions subjecting the militia or other citizens to forcible drafts, conscriptions, or impressments not authorized by the Constitution of the United States.

Resolved, That it be, and hereby is, recommended to the said Legislatures to authorize an immediate and earnest application to be made to the government of the United States, requesting their consent to some arrangement whereby the said States may, separately or in concert, be empowered to assume upon themselves the defense of their territory against the enemy; and a reasonable portion of the taxes, collected within said States, may be paid into the respective treasuries thereof, and appropriated to the payment of the balance due said States and to the future defense of the same. The amount so paid into the said treasuries to be credited, and the disbursements made as aforesaid to be charged to the United States.

Resolved, That it be, and hereby is, recommended to the Legislatures of the aforesaid States to pass laws (where it has not already been done) authorizing the governors or commanders-in-chief of their militia to make detachments from the same or to form voluntary corps, as shall be most convenient and conformable to their constitutions, and to cause the same to be well armed, equipped, and disciplined, and held in readiness for service; and upon the request of the governor of either of the other States to employ the whole of such detachment or corps, as well as the regular forces of the State, or such part thereof as may be required and can be spared consistently with the safety of the State, in assisting the State, making such request to repel any invasion thereof which shall be made or attempted by the public enemy.

Resolved, That the following amendments of the Constitution of the United States be recommended to the States represented as aforesaid, to be proposed by them for adoption by the State Legislatures, and in such cases as may be deemed expedient by a convention chosen by the people of each State.

And it is further recommended that the said States shall persevere in their efforts to obtain such amendments until the same shall be effected.

First. Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers of free persons, including those bound to serve for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed and all other persons.

Second. No new State shall be admitted into the Union by Congress, in virtue of the power granted by the Constitution, without the concurrence of two-thirds of both Houses.

Third. Congress shall not have power to lay any embargo on the ships or vessels of the citizens of the United States, in the ports or harbors thereof, for more than sixty days.

Fourth. Congress shall not have power, without the concurrence of two-thirds of both Houses, to interdict the commercial intercourse between the United States and any foreign nation, or the dependencies thereof.

Fifth. Congress shall not make or declare war, or authorize acts of hostility against any foreign nation, without the concurrence of two-thirds of both Houses, except such acts of hostility be in defense of the territories of the United States when actually invaded.

Sixth. No person who shall hereafter be naturalized shall be eligible as a member of the Senate or House of Representatives of the United States, nor capable of holding any civil office under the authority of the United States.

Seventh. The same person shall not be elected President of the United States a second time, nor shall the President be elected from the same State two terms in succession.


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Chicago: James Schouler, "Secession Threatened in New England," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in America, Vol.5, Pp.228-236 Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WYHSPIPMDJXVB87.

MLA: Schouler, James. "Secession Threatened in New England." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in America, Vol.5, Pp.228-236, Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WYHSPIPMDJXVB87.

Harvard: Schouler, J, 'Secession Threatened in New England' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , America, Vol.5, Pp.228-236. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=WYHSPIPMDJXVB87.