Harrison Gray Otis Organizes The Hartford Convention

Harrison Gray Otis Organizes The Hartford Convention

Harrison Gray Otis was an important lawmaker from Massachusetts during the early days of the American Republic.  

He was most closely associated with the Hartford Convention which wanted to reign in the power Virginia had on the presidency and end the War of 1812.

Harrison Gray Otis

Harrison Gray Otis grew up with the American Revolution.  His father was a leader of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and a member of the Continental Congress.  His uncle, James Otis, and aunt, Mercy Otis Warren, were also prominent figures in the American Founding.

Harrison became a lawyer by trade but dedicated himself to public life from the beginning.

Otis was elected to the Massachusetts Legislature at just 29 years old.  He was appointed U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts by President Washington, receiving his first experience with the national government.

By 1797 Otis was elected to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives.  When Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans swept into office in 1801, Harrison returned to his home State where he would spend the next fifteen years as a leader in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Wartime Dissent

During the War of 1812, the Federalists of New England had grown exceedingly tired of what they considered oppressive regulations by the Madison Administration.

The final straw came when the federal government attempted to raise troops to fight in the war.  The New England States (notably Massachusetts and Connecticut) had chosen to keep their troops home to fight with the local militias.  

This decision had been made because the British Army was in Canada and patrolling the eastern seaboard.  These States believed it was more urgent to have their men defend their homes than be sent to the front of a war they didn’t support.

In retaliation for this, Madison refused to pay any expenses incurred by the States.

Harrison Gray Otis proposed calling together a convention of New England States to discuss how to handle this matter.

The Hartford Convention

Otis’ congress, known thereafter as the Hartford Convention, met from late 1814 through early 1815.  Their intention was to discuss defending New England from the British and to formulate a plan to steer the U.S. Government in a direction they were happier with.

Although the preceding of the Convention were held in secret, we do know that Otis was both an organizer of the event and a leader among the moderates in attendance.  Therefore, it is safe to assume he played an important role in the debates.

The Hartford Convention ended with recommended Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Among these were limits on trade embargoes, a 2/3 majority in Congress to declare war, elimination of the three-fifths compromise, and a one term limit for president.

Fallout

Although their demands may seem reasonable, the Convention was held at exactly the wrong time.

When representatives of the Convention arrived in Washington, DC, it was at the same time news arrived of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans and the subsequent end of the War of 1812. 

This, coupled with the smear campaign run by the Democratic-Republicans, tarnished the reputation of the Federalist Party.  Both the Federalists and the Hartford Convention became synonymous with secession and, therefore, treason.

The truth is most of the attendees never considered secession as an option.  Instead, the Hartford Convention was viewed in the same vein as the Continental Congress and the Stamp Act Congress before it.  The delegates saw themselves as people of common cause coming together to protest their government with a list of clear grievances as Americans traditionally had done.

Senator

Fortunately for Otis, he lived in Massachusetts where Federalist support continued well after the actual political party had faded.

Soon after the Hartford Convention he was elected to the United States Senate where he represented his State.  Upon returning home, he spent three years as Mayor of Boston before retiring at the age of 66.

Conclusion

Harrison Gray Otis was a career politician who dedicated his life to the early years of the American Republic.  Unfortunately, he is most closely associated with the disastrous Hartford Convention despite years of work for the betterment of his country.

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To learn more about Harrison Otis or the Hartford Convention, I recommend one of the two books below.  We are affiliated with Amazon because they are a trusted source and although we receive a commission, the price you pay will not be affected.

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