The Northern Secession
Half a century before the southern states left the Union in 1860-1861, the people of the New England states plotted to break from the Union. This culminated in the Hartford Convention of 1814, in which delegates narrowly voted against secession.
New England resentment toward the federal government generally began when Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. Although there were no political parties at the time, Jefferson led a faction called the “Democratic-Republicans” (or Republicans) that favored an economy based on agriculture, expansion, and weaker ties to Britain. This contrasted with the “Federalist” faction, which emphasized manufacturing over farming and stronger ties to Britain. Federalists were most prevalent in New England.
When Jefferson approved the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Englanders feared that America would be opened to “hordes of foreigners” that would threaten the nation’s ethnic purity. They also feared that the new territory would someday be carved into southern states that could politically diminish New England. By 1804, Senator Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, a former adjutant general to George Washington in the War for Independence, urged his fellow New Englanders to consider seceding from the Union.
During much of Jefferson’s presidency, Britain and France were at war, and U.S. shipping suffered collateral damage as a result. Jefferson responded by signing the Embargo Act, which intended to deprive British and French markets of U.S. goods by prohibiting the U.S. from trading with either country.
U.S. markets suffered from the loss of two of their main trading partners. New Englanders were especially harmed by the Embargo Act because of their reliance on foreign trade, mostly with Britain. Many condemned Jefferson’s “damnbargo” and resorted to illegal smuggling while talk of secession intensified.
Jefferson was succeeded as president by James Madison, another southern Republican. Madison proved even more unpopular among New Englanders by approving the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which strengthened Jefferson’s trade embargo. New Englanders responded by issuing a “Treaty of Alliance and Confederation,” declaring that the central government was just an association of states and had no authority to impose such harsh measures.
Alienating New England further was Madison’s initiation of the War of 1812 against Britain. This war ended all legal trade with Britain, which was New England’s largest trading partner. New England Federalists feared that another war with Britain would destroy their commerce and tax them into poverty.
When Madison ordered the War Department to commandeer state militias for the war, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to furnish troops. The Connecticut legislature denounced Madison’s military draft plan as “barbarous and unconstitutional.” The Massachusetts legislature approved assembling a convention to air grievances against the federal government.
The Hartford Convention assembled at the Old State House in Connecticut’s state capital in December 1814. Attending were 26 delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The delegates considered several measures, including seizing the federal customs houses, impounding federal funds, declaring neutrality, and seceding from the Union.
Many delegates shied from secession because they feared that if they supported such a move, and New England remained in the Union, their political careers would be ruined. Moreover, New York refused to send representation, and most convention delegates believed that secession could not be sustained without New York. Therefore, a series of constitutional amendments were proposed as an alternate to secession. These were designed to limit federal power and protect New England interests:
- Apportioning representatives and taxes according to the number of free people in each state. This would repeal the “three-fifths” clause in which each southern slave was counted as three-fifths of a person to increase southern population and decrease southern taxation, thus giving the South more representation in Congress with fewer taxes.
- Requiring a two-thirds congressional majority to admit a new state into the Union. This would minimize the potential creation of southern states within the Louisiana Purchase.
- Limiting trade embargoes on U.S. ports to 60 days or less. This would reduce the adverse effects of future embargo laws on New England commerce.
- Requiring a two-thirds congressional majority to interfere with trade between any state and any foreign country. This would minimize federal control over New England’s trade with Britain.
- Requiring a two-thirds congressional majority to declare war, except in cases of defense. This would prevent future unpopular conflicts such as the War of 1812.
- Requiring senators and representatives to have been born in the U.S. This would prevent foreign influence on the federal government, mostly among pro-French Republicans.
- Limiting presidents to one term and requiring a succeeding president to come from a different state than his predecessor. This would break Virginia’s presidential dynasty of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
In addition, the delegates asserted their right to resist abusive government power. This was a right that was ironically endorsed by their political enemy, Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence. It was the same right invoked by the southern states when they seceded from the Union three generations later.
The delegates narrowly voted against seceding from the Union, and no official resolution to secede was adopted. Moreover, no official document asserted the right to secede, mainly because it was believed that the right was inherent and its assertion would be redundant. There was also no indication that any delegate believed that endorsing secession was treason.
Commissioners were designated to present the Hartford Convention demands to federal officials in Washington. However, the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 before the commissioners reached the capital. With the war ended, the New England Federalists’ demands were perceived as irrelevant at best and subversive at worst.
Remembering New England’s refusal to participate in the war, Americans throughout the rest of the country turned against the region. The legality of secession was not questioned, but many viewed New Englanders as traitors for considering secession in a time of war. The anger was so pervasive that the Federalist faction dissolved within a decade.
New Englanders exercised what they believed to be their inherent right to oppose an overbearing, tyrannical federal government that favored southern interests ahead of their own. As time went on, southerners came to embrace the ideals of the Hartford Convention, making the same charge against Washington as did the New Englanders.
Had New Englanders voted to secede in 1814, the federal government most likely would not have stopped them. However, by the time the southern states seceded in 1860-1861, supporters of centralized government equated secession with treason, even though they were not one and the same according to the nation’s founders. This sectional dispute, which had originated in the North, led to the most terrible war in American history.