1816, James Monroe Defeats Rufus King: The Hartford Convention – Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath

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Rufus King: delegate from Massachusetts to both the Confederation Congress and the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (where, he was one of five members of the influential Committee of Style), long-time U.S. Senator from New York, unsuccessful candidate for governor of New York, two-time American ambassador to Great Britain (where his first successor was James Monroe), and three times unsuccessful Federalist Party candidate for high executive office in the general government—twice for vice-president and once for president. It was this patriot’s lot to lead the disgraced and disintegrating rump of the Federalist Party in its last national campaign.

James Monroe: delegate from Virginia to the Confederation Congress, U.S. Senator and governor of Virginia, American ambassador to France and, subsequently, Great Britain (where Rufus King was his predecessor), member of the cabinet during the Madison administration, and two times successful candidate for president. It was this patriot’s lot to lead the victorious Democratic-Republican Party in its last national campaign, before its collapse into competing factions in the election of 1824 ended the First American Party System and the New York-Virginia axis that had dominated it.

The election of 1816 followed the generally disastrous War of 1812. The Jefferson administration’s diplomatic incompetence and its namesake’s ideological hostility to Great Britain, along with the British government’s lack of forward vision, had produced a drift to an entirely avoidable war. As minister to Great Britain, Monroe had negotiated a treaty in 1806 to extend the expired Jay Treaty of 1794. Like its predecessor, the proposed treaty would have protected beneficial commercial access for American merchants to British markets. However, Jefferson refused even to submit the treaty to the Senate for approval. When relations with Britain soured over the Royal Navy’s boarding of American ships and impressment of American sailors, Jefferson recalled his proposals from the 1790s on how to deal with such matters and opted for economic sanctions.

The Embargo Act of 1807–supported in early 1809 by an extraordinary military enforcement act–prohibited American shipping to foreign ports, all American exports, and many British imports. As a result, for more than a year, American shipping was generally confined to American ports. The embargo was not airtight. Smuggling relieved some economic effects of the disastrous policy. Large shipowners already had ships abroad and avoided the embargo. But small and medium-sized shippers were financially ruined. The economy suffered, with the worst effect in New England and New York. The frustrated Jefferson was prodded to proclaim an insurrection in a portion of New York and to order several–unsuccessful–treason prosecutions.

In reaction, the New York legislature in 1808 nominated Vice-President George Clinton to become the Democratic-Republican candidate for president, rather than Jefferson’s hand-picked successor, James Madison. Virginia followed suit. A group of self-styled “Old Republicans,” led by the fiery John Randolph of Roanoke, the party’s leader in the House of Representatives, nominated James Monroe. An attempt at a temporary morganatic marriage between these Republican dissidents and the fading Federalist Party failed, so that Madison was elected.

However, the Federalists controlled the New England state governments. In a preview of future events, in February, 1809, a serious proposal was launched to gather a convention of New England states to nullify the Embargo Act. When Jefferson and his successor, Secretary of State Madison, denounced these efforts, the Federalists cited the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, drafted by these two eminences in 1798 in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. The administration’s leaders were further shocked by a flurry of resolutions from New England towns, some of which threatened secession from the United States.

Relations with Britain continued along their slow arc towards war. The British and the French intensified their seizure of neutral shipping in their efforts to cripple the other’s economy. The United States, caught in the squeeze, responded with “non-intercourse” legislation. Madison eventually used this on March 2, 1811, to prohibit American commerce with Britain. Combined with Napoleon’s similar strategy, the policy hurt Britain economically in the short term. However, in the longer term, it triggered a de facto British blockade and devastated American commerce. That result, in turn, emboldened the young and rising congressional war hawks. Madison, who had little political skill or personal charisma, was left with no political maneuvering room. War was declared, over the strident opposition of the New England, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland delegations.

New England was still controlled by the Federalist Party. Indeed, the anti-war fever in the region increased their popularity and brought them a temporary respite on their trek to oblivion. When Madison sought military assistance from the states, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut refused to release their militias, claiming that they were needed to protect the region and using them as the core of separate state armies. Federalist merchants refused to purchase war bonds. The government’s finances were in disarray. The national debt tripled in four years. Funding by Congress was insufficient. By 1815, looming insolvency threatened the government’s ability to meet its bills.

In 1814, Britain extended its blockade to New England. In October of that year, Massachusetts called for a New England Convention to meet at Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss “their public grievances and concerns” and “defence against the enemy…and also to take measures if they shall think proper, for procuring a convention of delegates from all the United States, in order to revise the Constitution thereof.” The Convention met secretly in December, 1814, with delegates mainly from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, but also a few from municipalities in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Radicals at the convention sought an entirely new federal constitution, with special protections for New England, to be presented to the original thirteen states. If those did not approve, there would be secession and a separate peace with England, points that met with favor in the British press.

Fortunately for the Union, more moderate voices prevailed. Drawing on the principles of states’ rights and Madison’s and Jefferson’s arguments in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, the Convention in its report on January 5, 1815, merely urged state interposition against unconstitutional federal conscription and militia laws. It further proposed seven amendments to the Constitution, among them representation in the House to be based on free population only, a two-thirds vote needed to declare war or impose an economic embargo, a single term for the president, and no successive presidents to come from the same state—a blow against the recent dominance of Virginia over that office. Another convention was to be called if the war continued and the federal government failed to respond favorably to these proposals. While secession was ruled out as inexpedient, its specter was useful both to mollify the more militant delegates and to encourage serious consideration by the other states of New England’s demands.

These proposals suffered the same political ignominy as had Jefferson’s and Madison’s efforts in 1798. Only Connecticut and Massachusetts approved, while nine states formally disapproved or dissented. However, the Hartford Convention had two lasting impacts. First, on the constitutional level, it showed the national value of appeals to state sovereignty and state-driven constitutional amendment as counterbalance to oppressive and unconstitutional federal action. What Virginia and Kentucky started, New England continued, and South Carolina subsequently refined and expanded is still a part of constitutional politics, as seen in the reaction to feckless federal action regarding the country’s borders and in the calls for an “Article V Convention of States.”

Second, the convention affected the political landscape. With the issuance of its report and the end of the War of 1812, secession fever broke. The belated and militarily inconsequential victory of Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans and the peace treaty with Great Britain allowed the Madison administration to seize the political heights. New England was blamed for federal blundering in the war, and the Federalist Party was tainted with lack of patriotism. Mortally wounded, it never recovered.

The two antagonists in the 1816 election, Monroe and King—so similar in background and talent—suffered such different fates. Monroe received 183 out of 217 electoral votes and served two terms as president. King, who carried only Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Delaware, continued as U.S. Senator and, eventually, as ambassador to Britain. But, like the party whose last standard-bearer he was, he has passed into historical obscurity.

The historian Samuel Eliot Morison eulogized this party “that contained more talent and virtue, with less political common sense, than any of its successors….[They led] an inchoate nation to enduring union….But their chosen basis, an oligarchy of wealth and talent, was not sufficiently broad or deep. Neither their patience nor their vision was adequate for their task….The expanding forces of American life enveloped and overwhelmed them.”

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.

3 replies
  1. Cathy Gillespie
    Cathy Gillespie says:

    Hi – it’s Cathy and Janine – we just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who is participating in our 90 Day Study, and sharing the essays on your social media!

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  2. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    I really enjoyed this essay. I know a lot of American history, but am admittedly ignorant of the period from 1808 through late 1840s. I look forward to reading the essays from this period.

    PSD

    Reply

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