George Washington was the nation’s first and only president without a party affiliation. Although he officially eschewed parties and warned of the dangers of them, on policy he frequently sided with the Federalist Party, which had been formed in 1789. Among the members of the Federalist Party were Vice President John Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. In 1796, Adams ran for president with Washington’s support and won decisively. However, the Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the administration’s pro-British policies proved unpopular and he was both the first president to lose reelection and the last Federalist president.
Thomas Jefferson proved a popular president for most of his time in office despite Federalist Party propaganda claiming he was a radical. After all, Jefferson had engaged in the most dramatic purchase of land in American history, the Louisiana Purchase. The voters happily elected James Madison, or the Father of the Constitution, to the presidency in 1808 with 64.7% of the vote, with Federalist Charles Pinckney only winning New England states and Delaware. The Federalist Party seemed to continue to decline and its members made the fateful decision to oppose the War of 1812. This time, the Federalist Party did better on the popular vote, albeit not through the Federalist candidate, but rather DeWitt Clinton, a Democratic-Republican who had courted the support of Federalists and came within three points of defeating Madison. Although the Federalists were at a distinct disadvantage, it was still possible for them to have a chance and some relevance, that is until December 1814.
On December 15, 1814, twenty-six Federalists met in Hartford, Connecticut to discuss their concerns with the current state of the United States. It was presided over by George Cabot, who had been a senator from Massachusetts. At the start of the convention it wasn’t necessarily clear that the War of 1812 was coming to an end and what’s more, the New England Federalists didn’t want to be taxed for a war they didn’t support to pay off war debt. Thus far, only one president had not been from Virginia (John Adams) and this New England centered party thought their region’s interests were not being best served. Worse yet, the system at this time seemed to benefit the South and Jeffersonian Republicans as the 12th Amendment had prevented the possibility of the candidate with the most votes being elected president while the one with the second was vice president and made it less likely Congress would decide who was president. Gouverneur Morris, the author of the final draft of the Constitution, was now calling for the creation of a New England Confederacy to avoid taxes from war debt. Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, who had served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War under Washington, called for secession in order to negotiate New England’s reentry into the union under more favorable terms. However, cooler heads prevailed and the convention rejected secession. By the end of the convention on January 5, 1815, they had written seven constitutional amendments designed to further states’ rights. Despite the secrecy of the meeting, which itself was regarded as suspicious, the press got wind that Morris, Pickering, and other Federalists had voiced support for secession. This brought terrible press on the Federalists and led many people who might otherwise vote for them to move to the Democratic-Republicans out of a sense of patriotism. The convention was also the victim of bad timing as the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, had been ratified during the convention.
In 1816, the Federalist Party tried one last time to run a presidential candidate, but the reputation of the party had largely been wrecked nationwide due to the entertaining of secession by the Hartford Convention. The Federalist Party candidate, Senator Rufus King of New York, only won 30.9% of the vote and the states of Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. From that point the party’s presence in Congress shrank until 1825, when the Federalist Party was no longer a presence. The party lingered on until 1834. At the time of its demise it was irrelevant and overshadowed by other opposition parties that could fulfill the aims of the Federalists minus the baggage of a convention that entertained secession.
Bailey, J.D. The Hartford Convention. Bill of Rights Institute.
Hartford Convention. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Janis, M. (2014, December 14). The Hartford Convention and the Specter of Secession. UConn Today.