Interposition: Part Nine: The Hartford Convention

Few in power find it convenient to notice inconsistencies in their own conduct. Alas, but President Madison was no exception. Federalism and decentralization exist precisely because free constitutions should not depend on the good graces of those in office, but on the checks necessary to harry them back under the law.

Seeking the financial means to carry on his war, Madison did not appreciate New England’s opposition to his measures or her refusal to lend. As the enemy bore down from the north at various points along the Canadian border, Madison attempted to impose conditions on the New England militias, not trusting them, as he did the other states, to staff and command their own forces.

In these efforts, the fourth president was roundly rebuffed by the governors and legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. They correctly pointed out that the Constitution reserved to each state the right of officering her state militias: The president could certainly call those units into service according to the constitutional powers that authorized Congress to declare war, but he could not reorganize those units without a state’s permission. Unable to get his way, Madison refused to mobilize New England’s forces and subsequently refused to pay any expenses for her defense.

Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts organized and raised his own force of some 10,000 men at a cost of 1 million dollars, which was a considerable sum in that day. Facing such staggering costs and outraged by what they considered to be the unconstitutional and dangerous manner in which their region had been treated, the New England states elected to protest in the same spirit as they had done against the embargo, but this time they went a step further: Coordinated state action.

Under the inspiration of Harrison Gray Otis and Theodore Dwight (the brother of Timothy Dwight of Yale), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several counties of New Hampshire and Vermont sent representatives to meet in Hartford Connecticut between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815. There they formed a list of grievances and a call for constitutional amendments, concluding with a threat to organize another convention should these proposals not be taken up by the other states in the Union.

The men who attended this gathering tried to moderate the more extreme elements calling for secession and outright resistance to the national government (see Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. VII, Houghton Mifflin, 1888, p. 321 and notes) but the prospect of a convention sent shivers through the administration. It is not difficult to see why.

In “A Short Account of the Hartford Convention to which is Added an Attested Copy of the Secret Journal of that Body” (1823), Theodore Lyman, noted that Massachusetts was quite open about her aims, and “the sense of her citizens was at that time well known, and in relation to the Hartford Convention, she adopted without delay that course of conduct, of which an eminent example had been given less than half a century before, and which, in this juncture of affairs, was especially judicious, from the vast magnitude of the subject and occasion.” (p.8) That example was Madison’s own call at the end of the Annapolis Convention for the convention that followed in Philadelphia, which of course ultimately put an end to the Articles of Confederation.

When the Hartford Convention got down to business on its second day, it considered, according to the Attested Copy of the Secret Journal, the two constitutional grounds of New England’s grievances just mentioned: “The [unconstitutional] powers claimed by the executive of the United States, to determine, conclusively, in respect to calling out the militia of the States into the service of the United States; and the dividing the United States into military districts with an officer of the army in each thereof, with discretionary authority from the executive of the United States, to call for the militia to be under the command of such officer.”

The second grievance followed immediately after: “The refusal of the executive of the United States to supply, or pay the militia of certain States…on the grounds of their not having been called out under the authority of the United States, or not having been…put under the command of the commander over the military district.” These two grievances then formed the basis of the final and more damning constitutional conclusion that the national government had failed to meet its obligation as stated in the preamble “to provide for the common defense.”

In their protest the members stood on solid textual grounds. It was true that Section Eight of the First Article gave Congress the power “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” but it specifically reserved “to the states respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

Did this “prescribed” discipline give Madison the right to reorganize the New England militias? It might have, but only if Congress had specifically formed such a policy, and had done so equally for all parts of the Union. The fact that President Madison asserted this as a matter of executive authority, and the fact that he applied that policy unequally to some of the states and not to all of them, violated both the spirit and the letter of the fundamental law. With these arguments before them, the delegates proposed their Constitutional remedies.

They called for consideration on the part of the states for amendments that would permit the state legislatures “some arrangement whereby the States may be enable[d] to retain a portion of the taxes levied by Congress, for purposes of self defence (sic), and for reimbursement of expenses already incurred, on account of the United States.” They then proceeded to request further consideration be given to certain other constitutional issues: To restrict Congress’ power to declare war; to restrain its power “to make new States, and admit them into this Union; to limit Congress’ power to impose embargoes and restrict commerce; to prohibit a president from the same state serving two consecutive terms; and finally, and perhaps most ominously of all, to eliminate the 3/5ths provisions of the Constitution “respecting slave representation, and slave taxation.”

This last provision underscored a growing cultural and political divide already evident between the northern and southern states. New Englanders had always felt aggrieved to some degree by the so-called 3/5ths compromises in the Philadelphia Convention. Already by this time, they saw it as a principal driver of western expansion, and the Southern states made little bones about their desire to move the peculiar institution westward, and to form an alliance with that region in opposition to New England.

Thus the Hartford delegates sought restrictions on admitting new states as well as the elimination of the South’s use of slaves in calculating her population numbers. It is interesting to note that at this point in time, the South’s rising star, J. C. Calhoun of South Carolina, was a strong nationalist defender of the War of 1812 and a proponent of a new national bank so that the general government could more easily finance such military ventures in the future. The irony of ironies is that this situation was about to change yet again.

As reported by Theodore Dwight, the Secretary of the Hartford Convention, in his later history of that meeting, the timing of the delegates’ report to Washington could not have been worse. It arrived just as news from England of the War’s end came along with the report of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. While the war had not gone so well for America in general, the popular sense created by this juncture produced a patriotic fervor that was ill disposed to consider of the resolves of the Hartford delegates.

The commission attempted to quietly retire back to New England, but the popular reaction, especially among Madison’s Republican Party was to revile its proceedings as radical secessionism, and the reputation of that convention has labored under such a misapprehension ever since.

Far from secessionism, however, the Hartford Convention presented yet another means of interposition through coordinated state action, and to the degree that such coordination gathered more sustained attention (even if in the negative) from the other states, to that degree it succeeded. With the war’s end, Hartford’s issues became moot, but one could easily imagine what might have developed had the exigencies of war persisted.

The next stage of development in the ideas of interposition, however, would raise the stake higher, actually attempting what Jefferson had contemplated in the Kentucky Resolves: Nullification. Interestingly, the author of this approach was our leading nationalist of the 1810s. Calhoun had been a student of Theodore Dwight’s brother about a decade earlier at Yale. Timothy Dwight shared his brothers’ attachment to the reserved rights and powers of the states. Calhoun had resisted such thinking as his student, but when the issue of tariffs touched his own state’s interests in the next decade, he began to avail himself of Dwight’s understanding, coming to a deeper appreciation of the need to constitutionally restrain centralized power, but he did so with an interesting and novel twist that would have a profound impact on the popular perception of state’s rights.

And Calhoun’s solution would prove perhaps the most difficult and cumbersome of all…

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