Adams Family Correspondence, volume 4

John Adams to Rector Verheyk

Enclosure: List of Articles


The convention to which AA alludes was held at Hartford, Conn., in mid-November. The four New England states and New York sent delegates; copies of the proceedings were transmitted to the governors of all the states, to General Washington, and to Congress. The ten resolutions adopted by the Convention were designed to guarantee—by “Coertion” if necessary, since some states were seriously delinquent—the filling up of state quotas of “Men Money Provisions or other Supplies” levied by Congress. The premise on which the Convention acted in this the bleakest year 19of the Revolution was that “Our present Embarrassments ... arise in a great Measure from a Defect in the present Governments of the United States,” which meant to those who held this view that Congress lacked effective power over the state governments. As E. James Ferguson and others have pointed out, the Hartford Convention of 1780 betokened a shift in American leadership from those who had begun and hitherto largely conducted the struggle for independence to a more conservative class of merchants and propertied men who thought the cause was faltering through want of vigorous, efficient, centralized authority. The leaders now coming forward were “nationalists,” whose thinking anticipated that of the majority of members of the Federal Convention of 1787 and of the Federalist party of the 1790's. See E. James Ferguson, The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776–1790, Chapel Hill, 1961, ch. 6; also the older account of the Hartford Convention of 1780 in George Bancroft, History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America, N.Y., 1882, 1:12–16. The letters and proceedings of the Convention as laid before Congress and committed on 12 Dec. ( JCC , 18:1141) are in PCC, No. 33:391–418. Texts of these, contributed by Bancroft and apparently not available in print elsewhere, are in Magazine of Amer. Hist., 8 (1882): 688–698.

As soon as the recommendations of the Convention became known they excited strong feelings among those less “nationalist” in their outlook—the “old revolutionaries,” so to speak. One clause in the fourth resolution, to which AA is alluding here, proved particularly offensive because it proposed to elevate military over civil power in a way painfully suggestive of Roman precedents familiar to all literate Americans. The original reads:

“That it be earnestly recommended to the several States represented in this Convention to Instruct their respective Delegates to use their Influence in Congress. That the Commander in Chief of the Army of the United States be Authorized and Impowered to take such Measures as he may deem proper and the publick Service may render necessary to induce the several States to a punctual Compliance with the Requisitions which have been or may be made by Congress for Supplies for the Years 1780 and 1781.”

James Warren interpreted this passage in the same manner and with the same alarm as AA did. Writing Samuel Adams on 4 Dec., he said:

“I suppose you have before this seen the doings and Resolutions of the Hartford Convention. If one of them does not astonish you I have forgot my political Catechism. Surely History will not be Credited when it shall record that a Convention of Delegates from the four New England States and from the next to them met at Hartford in the Year 1780, and in the heigth of our Contest for public Liberty and Security solemnly Resolved to recommend it to their several States to Vest the Military with Civil Powers of an Extraordinary kind and, where their own Interest is Concerned, no less than a Compulsive power over deficient States to oblige them by the point of the Bayonet to furnish money and supplies for their own pay and support. This must have been done without recollecting political Maxims, without attending to Historical Admonitions and warnings, or the Principles upon which our Opposition to Britain rests. General Washington is a Good and a Great Man. I love and Reverence him. But he is only a Man and therefore should not be vested with such powers, and besides we do not know that his successor will be either Great or Good. Much less can we tell what Influence this precedent may have half a Century since.” ( Warren-Adams Letters ), 2:151–152.

When the Convention's proposals came before Congress in December, the fourth resolution appeared to be essentially a renewal of a motion made in that body early in September by John Mathews of South Carolina and then defeated. Its substance is known only through a passage in a letter from James Lovell to Elbridge Gerry (both “old revolutionaries”), written on 20 November. Under its terms Washington was to be “fully authorized and empowered to carry into Execut'n in the most compleat and ample manner such measures as shall 20appear to him best calculated for raising and bringing into the field on or before the 1st day of Jan'ry next, an army of 25000 men to continue in the service of these United States during the present war with Great Britain,” together with the arms, ammunition, and stores required by them. “And the Congress of these United States do in the most solemn manner pledge themselves to the said Gen. W fully and vigorously to support him and to ratify whatever shall be by him done in the premises.” A second resolve declared these virtually unlimited “powers and authorities ... to be in full force” until 1 Dec. 1781. (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 5:542). We know something of the circumstances that led to the defeat of this motion from a letter that Mathews, its mover, addressed to Washington on 15 Sept.; it was thought, he said, to be “too strongly tinctured with ... Army principles” (same, p. 374). And so was the Hartford Convention's fourth resolution, on which John Witherspoon (a member of the committee to which the resolutions were referred) commented as follows in a letter of 16 Dec. to Governor William Livingston of New Jersey:

“Though it is well known to you that few persons have a higher opinion of or confidence in Gen. Washington than myself or a greater desire of having vigorous executive powers put into the hands of persons at the head of affairs either in the military or civil department, yet that resolution is of such a nature that I should never give my voice for it unless you or my constituents should specifically direct it, perhaps even not then, and I have that opinion of Gen. Washington that I do not think he would accept or act in consequence of such powers. What could induce that Convention to recommend such a measure is a mystery to me, but I believe it will have few advocates” (same, p. 487–488).

For the subsequent history of Congress' action, or inaction, on the Convention's proposals, which, minus the more offensive ones, became embodied in administrative reforms carried out after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in March 1781, see Madison, Papers, ed. Hutchinson, 2:318–319.