Sunday, December 18, 2016

A New Hartford Convention?

n 1812, we were tripped into a war that did not enjoy the full support of a majority of the American polity, one that quickly turned into a disaster. The schoolbook history pretends this war was was a victory, because we happened to win the biggest and last battle of the war, which was actually fought *after* the peace treaty settling the war had been signed (thanks to communication delays of the time). That the war was largely expansionist (freedom of the seas, while indeed a serious problem with Britain, was not a new problem in 1812, but made a convenient cassus belli) is often forgotten. It was desired by southern and western blocs because those persons desired more land, British land, for expansion, and more room for slavery to grow.

The reason the declaration of war was possible was because of the 3/5 rule. If you're not familiar with this, check out the Constitution. It gave slave-holding states extra representation in Congress, as part of the compromises of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, by counting all slaves as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation, even though they weren't considered human beings with representational rights. This paradox -- relying on slaves to maintain a political majority despite having a populational minority -- was at the heart of the political fighting that went on until the 1860 Presidential election finally put the matter to head when a plurality-winner in the popular vote, Abraham Lincoln, won the clear majority of electoral votes.

In 1814, a group of New Englanders -- devastated by the war most of them hadn't supported, and unable to find purchase in a government that was not proportionately representational to their numbers -- met in Hartford to consider a number of means of forcing constitutional redress. Although characterized by contemporaries and many later historians as a "secessionist" movement -- and secession from the Union was in fact discussed as an option, to be sure -- the primary problem discussed was how the Republic had been advanced to the point, 38 years after independence was declared, that the power of the federal government could be moved to war, the most extreme state of affairs possible for a nation, on the basis of a minority of its electors.

The Hartford Convention sort of fizzled out after a few months of deliberation, because of the Battle of New Orleans and the succeeding news of the Treaty of Ghent having been signed in late December, 1814, ending the war, removed the most urgent and immediate problem the convention was called to discuss.

I wonder how the history of our country might have played out differently had the sequence of events not been as it was -- if we had had, in effect, a second constitutional convention addressing this inequality in our political balance that went to its logical conclusion of making a concrete proposal, possibly an ultimatum. The compromises of 1820 and 1850, splitting the baby down the middle, forestalled the civil war but didn't address the major problem of discord in the 1850's, which was that a conservative Supreme Court and a slave-state minority increasingly tried to impose slavery on the rest of the country -- through attempted expansion to the west, and the abrogration of the rights of non-slaveholding states to provide sanctuary for escaped slaves, or even those born free (such as Solomon Northrup) who were kidnapped into slavery.

Might we have averted the civil war? And would the electoral college, already considered a problem in 1815, have been addressed by the threat of a split in the Union?

And I am in turn wondering if we might today convene a sort of rump convention of our own, Hartford style, to discuss these parallel modern issues among the aggrieved majority in our country, in solidarity with one another, and not in quaking fear of the tyranny of the extremist minority which controls our government?