Historiographical Essay: by Steven H. Park
The debates surrounding the Hartford Convention (15 December 1814-5 January 1815) in Connecticut rarely disputed the factual accuracy of reported evidence. In our age, when we rely so heavily on data, charts, and graphs, many historical interpretations are disputed based upon conflicting sources and interpretations of findings. Since the impressment of American mariners was one of the major reasons, ostensibly, for the Congressional declaration of war against the United Kingdom in 1812, the numbers of men impressed was one of the few highly-disputed and contention issues over evidence and numbers.
The Hartford Convention delegates occupied themselves with much more foundational issues. They debated the nature of the republic, who counted as a citizen for the purpose of representation, the legacy of the American Revolution and the US Constitution, regional dominance, and the role of the presidency and army in a federal union. The earliest histories of the convention, were not surprisingly, written by some the delegates themselves. With the war over and the Federalist Party, for all intents and purposes, dissolved, they were seeking their vindication. The nature of these early works were defensive, trying to explain to Americans why they did what they did. But, most importantly, they were trying to set the record straight that the delegates were moderates who were merely seeking to propose amendments to the US Constitution. They were not secessionists and certainly not engaging in any kind of treasonous activities. Moderate Federalists were sent to Hartford with a charge from their state assemblies to reform the system.
Massachusetts State Representative Theodore Lyman published his 36-page A Short Account of the Hartford Convention in Boston eight years after the meeting in Hartford. Lyman argued that the Convention was called by Governor and Legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts because of alarm over the British capture of Castine, ME (then part of Massachusetts) and fear for the safety of the rest of New England. While there had been several earlier proposals for a Federalist conventions, sudden concerns over self-defense were the immediate cause for the Hartford Convention. Lyman goes on the explain that, contrary to the libelous reports in Democratic newspapers, these men were not traitors or rebels. If they were, he argued, voters would not have continued to vote them back into office. Lyman was not a delegate to the convention but published its “secret journal.” The book concluded with George Cabot, the President of the Convention, attesting to the fact that these were the only notes taken and that they had remained in his custody since the meeting in Hartford.
The notes were taken by Theodore Dwight, the Secretary of the Convention, who published his own 447-page book in Boston and New York in 1833. Dwight was from a prominent New England family, was a lawyer, leader of the Federalist Party, a politician, and newspaper editor and publisher. Like Lyman, Dwight lashed back in righteous indignation against the Democratic and Republican critics of the Hartford Convention. He also attacked a book published at the very end of the war by Matthew Carey, The Olive Branch. Carey harshly criticized the behavior of both parties and urged them to extend an “olive branch” to one another so they could move past their highly-partisan positions and move forward with governing the nation. Carey interpreted the attempts by Federalist politicians to keep soldiers and tax revenue in New England as unpatriotic and treasonous during a time of war. Dwight ended his book by musing on the recent tariff and nullification crisis in South Carolina. He defended, again, the honorable delegates of the Hartford Convention who were acting during times of extreme hardship and threat of physical destruction vis a vis South Carolina’s politicians who were threatening the very fabric of the union during a time of peace and prosperity.
To be continued…