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Past and Present

Hartford Convention Exposed Early Divisions

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This year, Americans are observing the 200th anniversaries of events from the War of 1812, such as the burning of Washington, D.C. and the attack on Fort McHenry.

This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the Hartford Convention. Comprised of clandestine meetings held by anti-war New Englanders between December 1814 and January 1815, the Convention called for radical actions, such as the nullification of federal laws and possible secession from the union.

When Congress declared war against the British in 1812, New Englanders believed the action economically favored Southern states and an expansive federal government. As anti-war sentiment increased, Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to send their state militias, stating they were needed for Northern border defense. When President James Madison refused to pay the militias’ expenses, New Englanders cried out that he had abandoned the region, and demanded action.

A Massachusetts politician named Harrison Gray Otis suggested that delegates from New England discuss their grievances at a convention. The 26 participants from five states represented the strong anti-war sentiment of the region and believed that Madison had expanded presidential and federal power beyond their constitutional jurisdictions.

While the conventioneers aired many built-up grievances, the delegates eventually settled on four specific resolutions: prohibiting trade embargoes lasting more than 60 days, removing the three-fifths clause from the Constitution, limiting the president to one term, and requiring each president to be from a different state than his predecessor.

While Congress ultimately adopted none of these resolutions, the Hartford Convention demonstrates the severe economic and political divisions that already existed in the nation decades before the Civil War.