Wednesday, February 13, 2013

January 4, 1815 - New England Secedes

Not yet thirty years after declaring independence from Britain, New England declared independence again at the Hartford Convention during the latter days of the War of 1812. With the exception of John Adams, the United States had been dominated by Virginia planters, almost to the point of tyranny. While no one could speak ill of George Washington, the hero of the young country, the policies of Thomas Jefferson and his protégé James Madison infuriated New England.

The political differences were not completely geographical, but the societies of the North and South formed a great rift. In the South, Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans held to the ideal "gentleman farmer", men who could last on their own thanks to rich soil and, of course, slaves in his employ. Great wealth was held by the elites, who spoke of representing each man with natural rights while not giving the slave votes, but counting them as three-fifths for census to bolster their numbers in representation. Small states such as Rhode Island and New Hampshire were practically overlooked. They also spoke of minimal government influence on trade, refusing money for canals or highways, but seemingly all too happy to promote embargoes that forced up agrarian prices while decimating commerce.

Trade was New England's lifeblood. While the majority of people were small landowners and cottage-industrialists, the economy of the region still tied to harbors. The Federalists favored strong government for improvement and defense, but economic tampering and declaring war went too far. When Madison won his second term, the War of 1812 raged, and Canada became victim to American campaigns. Militias had worked in the Revolutionary War, and Massachusetts and Connecticut had refused to fall under the orders of an aggressive War Department, prompting Madison to refuse payment for defenses. They raised their own funds, prompted by Harrison Gray Otis, who would be a leading member of the Hartford Convention to discuss the grievances New England held. It was an obvious example that New England was prepared to stand on its own.

Secession had been brought up in years past, but the idea had always withered. Dr. Franklin himself had said repeatedly, "Join or die." However, they now had great reason to see what became of joining with war-hawks and expansionists making war on Canada. The Constitution brought forth by Madison himself read, "...establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense  promote the general Welfare..." The War of 1812 with its invasion was unjust in the eyes of New England, interrupted tranquility with its embargoes, brought about great danger with British naval raids, and retarded the general welfare overall. Otis led the call for secession, and New England voted to do just that.

The news shocked the rest of the nation. They had sneered at "Blue Light Federalists" who stood as pro-Britain and supposedly flashed blue-light signals in warning of blockade runners and known of New England opposition to the war in Congress, but this had gone too far. After news came to Washington about the signing of the Treaty of Ghent and the end of the war in December, the Federalists became embarrassed, but word of fights still continuing at New Orleans and in the frontier gave them a point to rally behind. Secession was made official, and all but a few representatives left the burned-out Washington, D.C. War-weariness dragged down efforts from the South to force New England back into the fold, though General Andrew Jackson repeatedly volunteered to lead a campaign. As Napoleon escaped from his exile and began anew his wars in France, New England took up alliance with Britain, which prompted the South to begrudgingly step back.

Tensions between the United States of America and the Federated States of America continued. Jackson became elected on a platform of invading the Federation, which had grown wealthy with its investments in canals, favored trade with Canada and Britain, as well as its improved banking system, and the War Between the States began in 1830. After four brutal years of New England's defense through militias and support from Britain, the United States answered New England's continual offer of armistice if they could just be free. Jackson proved to tear apart the Union rather than preserve it, sending the Democratic-Republicans into two parties that would break up the country further over the issue of slavery. The Confederate States of America from Virginia to Louisiana broke away in 1860, buffering up against the Republic of Texas. The old ideal of Manifest Destiny with the pioneers conquering the frontier from sea to shining sea would eventually be seen, but in the form of six differing nations after the formation of the California Republic and Deseret.

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In reality, secession was discussed but never taken to vote. Otis considered the War of 1812 to be the death knell for the Democratic-Republicans and Madison's regime. Instead, the Hartford Convention called for a series of amendments mandating greater separation of powers among the states as presidents could not follow one another from the same one (and only one term per president), limiting embargoes and the ability to declare offensive war, and repealing the three-fifths count for slaves. The commissions arrived in Washington to find the victory of New Orleans and the favorable Treaty of Ghent utterly demolishing their stand, and the Federalist Party would never recover the political misstep.

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Jeff Provine is a cartoonist, author, and professor in Oklahoma.  His blog This Day in Alternate History takes important events on a date and explores how they might've gone differently.  More of his work may be found at

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