The Hartford Convention: In the Civil War, the North Put an End to Southern Secession, but Earlier It Was Northerners Who Wanted Out

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In a war that appeared headed to no successful conclusion, the president of the United States, a visitor reported, "looks miserably shattered and woebegone. In short, he looked heart-broken." The visitor, Senator Jeremiah Mason of New Hampshire, saw "alarming indications of impending dissolution. ... If the war goes on the States will be left in a great degree to take care of themselves." He feared the conflict would end in "dissolution of the Union." Others in the region echoed the sentiment. The president's struggles with an enemy at arms were magnified by disdain for the war and talk of rebellion among the states in the North. There was open doubt of whether the nation would survive.

It was not the first time the survival of the young republic was a subject of doubt and confusion, and it would not be the last. For it was the War of 1812, and the nation was under attack, facing aimed invasion from Great Britain and threatened with dissolution by Northern states in a sectional conflict that foreshadowed in many ways the great Civil War of half a century later. Though the war President James Madison waged against the Red Coats was not nearly as long or costly as the later war against the Confederacy, Madison was, before it ended, nearly as despised in the North as Lincoln would be in Southern states. The claims of state sovereignty and the right to secede made by the Southern states that formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 are familiar to most readers. Lesser known are the similar claims made by the dissidents in the North during the conflict that had become known as "Mr. Madison's War." And it was insistence upon states' rights and the threat of secession in Northern states that led to the Hartford Convention of 1814-15.


Morose Madison

Madison had inherited from his predecessor, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, all the hostility from merchants and shippers that grew out of Jefferson's response to attacks on U.S. ships and the kidnapping of American seamen by Great Britain. Seeking to maintain neutrality in England's war with France, Jefferson got Congress to pass the Embargo Act, prohibiting all trade with other nations, later to be replaced by the Non-Intercourse Act, which banned trade only with England and France. Since England, the "Mistress of the Ocean," had been America's biggest trading partner and Napoleon's empire in France held sway over many of the ports of continental Europe, the embargoes dealt a heavy blow to a Northeast region where shipping was paramount. Indeed, the country as a whole suffered, as U.S. exports, having doubled from $55 million to $108 million between 1803 and 1807, dwindled to whatever could be smuggled out in 1808. But Southern planters found new outlets in the more than 100 new cotton and wool mills that had sprung up in New England, where capital was being diverted from shipping to manufacturing.The burden fell most heavily on the region's merchants and its ship building and shipping companies. Thousands of sailors were thrown out of work and, according to historian James Ellis, "As many as half of the working men in the New England coastal communities were unemployed. Poor houses were overflowed, banks failed."

When the war with England began, new taxes were levied on a nation noted for its anti-tax sentiment.For the first time, taxes were imposed on the sale of gold, silverware, jewelry, and watches. New Englanders resented paying more in federal taxes while seeing little in the way of Washington's provisions for the common defense. People and property went largely unprotected in the coastal regions, regularly bombarded and invaded by British forces.

"In July of 1812," wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "almost every regular unit garrisoning coastal forts marched off to invade Canada, leaving the New England coast defenseless except for the militia." Even after the War Department offered to keep the Massachusetts men within the state if they were placed under the command of Army officers, Governor Caleb Strong refused most presidential requisitions for militia. …