About the Author: Christopher Averill has taught AP® US History for 27 years and been actively involved in APUSH® grading for 22 years. Christopher has served as an APUSH® exam reader, table leader, exam leader, and question leader. Christopher was integral in establishing the AP® Teacher Best Practices Workshops at the annual AP® US History reading. He has been endorsed by the College Board as an AP Consultant since 1999 and has conducted numerous AP single-day workshops as well as Teaching and Learning Seminars. Starting in 2010 he began a four year term on the AP® US History Test Development Committee. Additionally, he was a Faculty Consultant editor for the 15th edition of the Alan Brinkley American History textbook.
The Hartford Convention was an 1814 meeting of Federalists in New England. The Federalists called the meeting to devise a strategy to retain political power in the national government. The key points of the convention outlined the Federalists’ continued opposition to the U.S. involvement in the War of 1812 and the protection of their regional economic interests. Two notable events occurred at the Convention:
- A number of radicals proposed that northern states secede from the Union. Though this idea was rejected, it was the first time the idea of secession seriously arose in American history.
- Several amendments to the U.S. Constitution were sent to Congress from this Convention:
- A requirement that 2/3 of Congress must approve a declaration of war or to admit a new state
- Presidents could only serve one term
- The abolishment of the 3/5th Compromise
The Federalists were tagged as traitors following this Convention for the proposals that came out of it. Though the U.S. Congress never voted on the amendments, it was apparent that the Federalists were trying to manipulate the Constitution in order to preserve their political power. They had more than 1/3 votes in Congress and the Senate, and thus could thwart Democrat-Republican power if the constitutional amendments had been passed.
Federalist Anger Overflow
The Hartford Convention was the result of a great deal of Federalist anger towards the Jefferson and Madison administrations. It began fourteen years before the Convention during the Election of 1800 (otherwise known as the Revolution of 1800). Jefferson and the Democrat-Republicans had defeated the dominant Federalist party which had held power prior to 1800. The Federalist policies, which had favored the commercial interests of the Northeast, were now replaced with policies that favored the southern and western farmers. When the Louisiana Territory was purchased in 1803, the Federalists started to see their political death; states carved from these vast land holdings would most likely vote Democrat-Republican.
The Federalist policies, which had favored the commercial interests of the Northeast, were now replaced with policies that favored the southern and western farmers.
Additionally, plots began to emerge to advance radical Federalist influence. If Aaron Burr was elected Governor of New York in 1804, there was a plan for secession. New York would join a group of radical Federalists, The Essex Junto, in New England and secede from the United States. Though a failure, it did not diminish the Federalist hatred towards Jefferson and his policies. When Jefferson established the Embargo Act in 1807, Federalist New England shippers escaped the port and traded in direct violation of federal law. Even after war was declared in 1812, Federalists traded directly with the British enemy through Canada. These events showed that the seeds of discontent between New England Federalist and Democrat-Republicans were planted long before the Hartford Convention.
These events showed that the seeds of discontent between New England Federalist and Democrat-Republicans were planted long before the Hartford Convention.
Contextualizing the Convention
The Hartford Convention highlights the competing sectional economic interests in the young American nation. The Federalist Party was comprised of business, banking, and shipping interests, mainly situated in the New England states. Federalists always supported government policies that promoted manufacturing and trading views. Much of the Federalist anger at the Hartford Convention was brought forth by governmental policies that worked against these interests.
The Hartford Convention highlights the competing sectional economic interests in the young American nation.
Westerners, mainly family farmers, supported expensive federal canal and road building projects in the Ohio River Valley. These were needed to move the resources of the Ohio River Valley to the markets of the East. However, to accomplish these large projects, the federal government would need to raise tariffs. Though the North would be happy to raise tariffs to protect their manufacturing, southerners Southerners would resist tariff increases. The southern economy, based largely on a single cash crop plantation system, would be hurt by higher tariffs for they would pay more for their goods and receive little in return. Ultimately, the West received minimal federally funded projects while the North was able to increase tariffs to protect their manufacturing, leading the South to nurture feelings of economic oppression from the powerful New England politicians.
Ultimately, the West received minimal federally funded projects while the North was able to increase tariffs to protect their manufacturing, leading the South to nurture feelings of economic oppression from the powerful New England politicians.
The Continuity, The Convention, and The Change
In terms of continuity, this Convention illustrates the conflict between “ins” and “outs”. Those “in” power pushed to increase the power of the federal government generally to inhibit the opposite power and thus interpreted the Constitution broadly (loose interpretation). Those “out” of power tried to block this expansion of power through a strict interpretation of the Constitution (strict interpretation). This framework applies to both political parties.
In terms of continuity, this Convention illustrates the conflict between “ins” and “outs”.
The Federalist as the “In” Party
For example, in 1798 the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by the “in” political party of Federalists with the intention of silencing their political opponents, the Democratic-Republicans. One of these acts denied the First Amendment right to freedom of speech when it prosecuted citizens who voiced or printed slanderous attacks on the president or government. Numerous Democrat-Republicans were jailed as a result. In response, Jefferson and Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves. These Resolves declared that states had the right to nullify Federal laws that violated individual freedoms. Ironically, when the Democrat-Republicans became the “in” party after the Election of 1800, Jefferson broadened the scope of Presidential power when he bought the Louisiana Purchase, even though he did not have the Constitutional power to do so. The Federalists, now the “out” party, in turn objected to it on the grounds of strict interpretation since the Constitution did not give him this power then he could not purchase it.
The Federalists, now the “out” party, in turn objected to it on the grounds of strict interpretation since the Constitution did not give him this power then he could not purchase it.
Moving Toward Convention
The Hartford Convention was in response to excessive power exercised by the Democrat-Republicans. The Federal government had shut down trading of the Federalist shippers of New England with Jefferson and Madison’s embargo policies. Thus, since the Federalists were out of power, they attempted to retain what little political power they had with the proposed Amendments to the Constitution.
The Hartford Convention was in response to excessive power exercised by the Democrat-Republicans.
Following the War of 1812, the American party system moved from a two-party system to a one-party system. It appeared to the common man that the ins holding power, the aristocrats, had stolen the election when J.Q. Adams received the presidency after promising the Secretary of State position to Henry Clay in return for Clay’s support in the House vote for President. This rumored “Corrupt Bargain” was widely despised by the common men who were out of power. Jackson, though winning the popular vote with large support from the common men lost in the House runoff vote. The indignation of the “common man” caused the split in the Democrat-Republicans into the National-Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats.
The “Ins” v. The “Outs”
This battle between ins and outs can also be seen in the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1833.
This battle between ins and outs can also be seen in the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1833. Congress had voted to raise tariffs in 1828. Southern Congressmen (outs) had voted against it, but they had been outvoted by northern and western Congressmen (ins). In response, the South Carolina Exposition and Protest was written. This firmly established the State Compact Theory which declared that states had made the federal government when they ratified the Constitution and thus could check the power of the federal government through nullification if laws were injurious to states. When the Tariff of 1832 did not go far enough in tariff reduction, South Carolina nullified the tariff law and refused to collect tariff revenues.
Change in Politics After Hartford
For more than twenty years before the Convention, the party political visions defined the difference in political issues. This pitted the Hamilton Federalists vs. the Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans. These parties shaped and molded the concept of federalism in the Constitution (division of power between state and federal governments) based upon their party interests. The Federalists wanted a national bank and thus pushed a broad interpretation by claiming the “necessary and proper” clause allowed it. In response, the Democrat-Republicans claimed strict interpretation when they stated that since it was not given to the federal government as a delegated power then it was reserved to the states.
However, notions of power changed from before to after the Hartford Convention. Before the Hartford Convention, power was viewed through the lens of political party. After the Hartford Convention, power was viewed through the lens of geographic sections within the United States, primarily between the North, the South, and the West.
After the Hartford Convention, power was viewed through the lens of geographic sections within the United States, primarily between the North, the South, and the West.
Rise of Sectionalism
With the death of the Federalist Party shortly after the Hartford Convention, the ideas of power began to follow sectional interests and not party interests as much. Though the Constitutional fight between state power and federal power remained the same, those vying for power were not so much fighting the other party, but rather, they were fighting another section of the country. The American system is a perfect example of this sectional fighting. Though the three parts of the system: higher tariffs, internal improvements, and a stronger federally controlled banking system were designed to make America stronger, regional interests blocked it from being passed in its entirety. The North supported higher tariffs for it would protect their growing manufacturing base. The West supported internal improvements such as canals and roads to open its resources to be traded to the East. The South tended to dislike all of the programs for they were paying higher tariffs in order to protect northern manufacturing and to pay for easier means of transportation in the West. The fight for sectional power came to a head in 1832 when South Carolina claimed that the State Compact Theory gave them the right to nullify the Federal Tariff Law of 1832. Though South Carolina backed down, it illustrates perfectly the switch in notions of power from party-based before the Convention to sectional-based following the Convention.
The fight for sectional power came to a head in 1832 when South Carolina claimed that the State Compact Theory gave them the right to nullify the Federal Tariff Law of 1832.