On August 24, 1814 the British troops stationed around the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812 made a march to Washington. Facing minimal and ineffective opposition, they then proceeded to burn the Capitol.
Leaving the citizenry largely unmolested, the troops also torched the building we now know as the White House, the Treasury and a host of others.
The British Burn the Capitol
All semblance of order had, for the most part, been expunged from the American militias. Their training, what little they had, consisted of a day of drills punctuated by wild drunkenness. Further, James Madison’s secretary of war thought Washington an unlikely target. So he spent more resources fortifying bustling port cities, such as Baltimore.
To the British army, fresh from thrashing Napoleon, sacking Washington was not much of an adventure. In New England, the leading political leaders of the day took it as simply one more sign that they were right and President James Madison was wrong – about almost everything.
For years, Washington’s policies disillusioned New England merchants. Admitting Louisiana as a state rankled. So did the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a man to determine representation in Congress.
But the trade embargoes of 1807 and 1813 were the real menace. These had severely hurt the merchants of the New England port towns. Though the embargoes spurred domestic manufacturing, the Federalists in power in government cared more about trade and finance.
They had tried in vain to stop the war. They’d even threatened to withhold support for U.S. loans unless they got their way in negotiated peace talks.
‘Let the British come’
The British didn’t just burn Washington. They also attacked Louisiana, New York and Maine, then part of Massachusetts. The assaults provided more evidence that Madison’s Democratic-Republicans had gotten the country into an extremely costly war.
Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut had all refused to send militias to join the war effort. In retaliation, Madison removed federal troops from New England, leaving the region to fend for itself.
With the attack on Maine, many worried that a British attack on the southern New England ports was now imminent. The Federalist leadership, however, remained sanguine.
“Let the British come, anything is better than this accursed war,” New Englanders said, according to Federalist Samuel Dexter.
Give Peace a Chance
Here the matter stood, until word reached New Englanders that in Alexandria, Va. – another Federalist enclave – the inhabitants had welcomed the British into the city. They laid down arms, but the British troops stole their belongings. That gave the governors of New England pause, and it prompted them to build some limited defenses.
But mostly the fear of Britain only intensified the Federalists’ desire for peace with Britain and a return to trade with England and France.
Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts, a leading Federalist, was one of the wealthiest men in the country. Otis and other Federalists called for a “convention” of the Federalists in Hartford.
The convention idea carried danger with it. It could turn volatile, and people could view it as an effort by New England to secede.
With official representatives from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont (and unofficial representatives from New Hampshire and Vermont), the Hartford Convention met in December and into January of 1815. Hardliners pushed for the states to secede, creating an enormous sense o drama.
Otis, a more moderate member of the Federalist establishment, pushed for a middle road. The states, he argued, should demand a series of changes to the Constitution.
- No trade embargoes could last more than 60 days, and they must require support from two-thirds of the congress to pass.
- No new states could join the union without support from two-thirds of Congress.
- Abolish the three-fifths rule that counted a slave as three-fifths of a man to calculate representation in the House of Representatives.
- A declaration of war would require support from two-thirds of Congress.
- States would receive federal tax dollars to support militias.
- Presidents could serve only one term.
- No president could serve as president if he came from the same state as his immediate predecessor.
- No one not born in the United States could hold public office.
A New England Nation?
The London press followed the convention’s progress with enthusiasm and praised the New England states. A new nation organized in New England, they said, would make an admirable ally.
Armed with this list of demands, Otis and two colleagues marched off toward Washington and, as it turned out, political oblivion. By the time the Federalists arrived in Washington to press their case with Congress and the president, the issues were moot.
By February of that year, Andrew Jackson routed the British troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Further, the British began tiring of the war. Public opinion was highly critical of the soldiers decision to burn the Capitol and other government buildings.
With the war with France over, the British needed to restore trade with its former ally. It also didn’t need to prevent U.S. trade with France any more. And, the British military concluded, a war to take control of the United States would simply cost too much.
Both sides then agreed to a treaty that returned things basically to the status quo before the war. America could trade with the British and the French. The British retained their rights to force American seamen to serve on British ships. But without the war with France fueling the need for sailors, impressment didn’t arise as a major concern.
As for Otis, the press had a good laugh at him and the demands of the Hartford Convention. In the South the Federalist party was ruined forever, synonymous with treason and failing to support the country in a time of war.
This story was updated in 2021.