What we have coming up on Thursday is Britain’s Hartford Convention moment.
Not that one person in a million in Britain has heard of the Hartford Convention. That is no surprise, since in America the convention – held in secret in Hartford, Connecticut, 1814 – is almost as unknown.
Of course it is. The narrative of official American history since 1865 has been that the federal union is, and has been since the establishment of the United States, indissoluble.
The problem for official historians – the ones the American writer Gore Vidal used to call ‘the court historians’—is that the evidence of the Hartford Convention shows it was not always so.
In late 1814, the New England States were fed-up with what the War of 1812 against the British (known as ‘Mr Madison’s war,’ after the then-President, James Madison) was doing to their trade.
That was their immediate grievance. Their long-term grievance was over the balance of political power that gave the Southern States, particularly Virginia, the richest of all the States, effective control of the federal government.
Anyone familiar with the early power of Virginia would not be surprised at the grievance: President James Madison was from Virginia, as was his immediate predecessor as president, Thomas Jefferson. Four of the first five US presidents were from Virginia, including of course Washington.
The New England delegates met in secret sessions at the Hartford State House for three weeks to draft a formal protest against the Federal Government’s continued involvement in the war, which allied the United States with France against Great Britain.
They planned to send a delegation to Washington to present their demands, including a Constitutional amendment that would dilute the Southern States’ power to declare war.
If the federal government would not consider their demands, many of the delegates of the Hartford Convention were ready to call for secession.
It was seen as the only way for the New England states to break free of the dominance of the Southern States. The threat was included in diplomatic-speak in the final paragraph of the official resolution to be presented to the government: if the resolution should be unsuccessful ‘it will in the opinion of this Convention be expedient for the Legislatures of the several States to appoint Delegates to another Convention, to meet at Boston, in the State of Massachusetts, on the third Thursday of June next with such powers and instructions as the exigency of a crisis so momentous may require.’
The momentous ‘crisis’ would be a decision for secession. No one was in doubt that the New England states could secede from the Union. The only question was whether they would.
An 1814 political cartoon titled ‘Leap or no leap’ illustrates how the rest of the States viewed the convention.
Here is how the US Library of Congress describes the cartoon. It shows that the Hartford Convention delegates were viewed as wishing to become British again:
‘The artist caricatures radical secessionist leader Timothy Pickering and lampoons the inclinations toward secession by convention members Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, alleging encouragement from English King George III.’
‘In the centre, on a shore, kneels Timothy Pickering, with hands clasped praying, "I, Strongly and most fervently pray for the success of this great leap which will change my vulgar name into that of my Lord of Essex. God save the King."’
‘On a precipice above him, a man, possibly Harrison Gray Otis, representing Massachusetts, pulls two others (Rhode Island and Connecticut, possibly James Hillhouse) toward the edge.’
‘Rhode Island: "Poor little I, what will become of me? this leap is of a frightful size -- I sink into despondency." Connecticut: "I cannot Brother Mass; let me pray and fast some time longer -- little Rhode will jump the first." Massachusetts: "What a dangerous leap!!! but we must jump Brother Conn."’
‘Across the water, on the right, sits George III with arms stretched out toward the men on the cliff. He calls, "O'tis my Yankey boys! jump in my fine fellows; plenty molasses and Codfish; plenty of goods to Smuggle; Honours, titles and Nobility into the bargain."’
‘On the left, below the cliff, is a medallion inscribed with the names of Perry, McDonough, Hull, and other heroes of the War of 1812 and decorated with a ribbon which reads, "This is the produce of the land they wish to abandon."’
As it happened, while the New England delegation were traveling to Washington, word reached them of the overwhelming victory of General Andrew Jackson against the British forces at the Battle of New Orleans, which indicated the war could soon be over.
Then on reaching Washington, they learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed between U.S. and British diplomats, ending the war.
The Hartford Convention delegates returned home. Their cause was dead in the water.
But their lesson lives on, and we will see it still lives on come Thursday: Just because no one doubts the right of a sovereign State to withdraw from a political and economic union today, doesn’t mean that next year – or next decade – that right will still be respected.
In 1814, the New England states freely declined to exercise their right to leave the Union. Some decades later, the Southern States chose not to decline that right...and while what happened next is a story for another day, the Hartford Convention remains a lesson for today.