Background: The War of 1812
Following the ratification of the Constitution and against the hopes of the Founders, American politics rapidly organized into a two-party system that approximately mirrored sectional differences: Roughly put, the Federalists emphasized global commerce, a strong central government and related institutions such as a National Bank to support this commerce, and alignment with Great Britain. Republicans emphasized the agrarian economy and states’ rights, and were sympathetic with the French Revolution.
In the first decade of the 19th century relations with Great Britain were strained to the breaking point by repeated British violations of American sovereignty, in particular the impressment of its seamen and restrictions on its trade with continental Europe. To force Great Britain to give way, Republican President Jefferson rammed the 1807 Embargo Act through Congress. The intent of the Act—totally misguided, as things turned out—was to strangle Britain by denying her essentially all American trade. It failed in this regard, but did succeed in badly damaging the interests of New England’s largely-Federalist mercantile class.
In June 1812 continued tensions with Great Britain provided the basis for an American declaration of War under Jefferson’s Republican successor James Madison. Ironically, while the putative objective was to defend American sovereignty and commercial interests vis-à-vis Great Britain, the commercial and Federalist North in general wanted nothing to do with it. The real backers were the “War Hawks” of the western states, led by Henry Clay, who saw war as an opportunity to clear the British from Lower Canada (Ontario) and open the region for American settlement.
Northern resistance to the War was so strong that in 1814 representatives from the New England states met at Hartford to work out a concerted response to Madison’s war policies. The primary agitator for the so-called Hartford Convention was Massachusetts’ Timothy Pickering, who hoped it would result in either a call for drastic revision of the Constitution or outright secession by the New England states and a reunion with Great Britain. The actual outcome was far more limited, consisting of proposals for modest constitutional amendments and policies to enhance New England autonomy and protect its interests. All came to naught, however, as American victories and the Treaty of Ghent left President Madison and the Republicans firmly in control.
Offered here is “The Hartford Convention or LEAP NO LEAP,” one of the best-known printed images produced during the War. The Library of Congress offers the following description:
“Charles’s satire attacks the Hartford Convention, a series of secret meetings of New England Federalists held in December 1814. The artist caricatures radical secessionist leader Timothy Pickering and lampoons the inclinations toward secession by convention members Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, alleging encouragement from English King George III. In the center, on a shore kneels Timothy Pickering, with hands clasped praying, ‘I, Strongly and most fervently pray for the success of this great leap which will change my vulgar name into that of my Lord of Essex. God save the King.” On a precipice above him, a man, representing Massachusetts, pulls two others (Rhode Island and Connecticut) toward the edge. Rhode Island: ‘Poor little I, what will become of me? this leap is of a frightful size — I sink into despondency.’ Connecticut: ‘I cannot Brother Mass; let me pray and fast some time longer — little Rhode will jump the first.’ Massachusetts: ‘What a dangerous leap!!! but we must jump Brother Conn.’ Across the water, on the right, sits George III with arms stretched out toward the men on the cliff. He calls, ‘O’tis my Yankey boys! jump in my fine fellows; plenty molasses and Codfish; plenty of goods to Smuggle; Honours, titles and Nobility into the bargain.’ On the left, below the cliff, is a medallion inscribed with the names of Perry, McDonough, Hull, and other heroes of the War of 1812 and decorated with a ribbon which reads, ‘This is the produce of the land they wish to abandon.’”
According to OCLC, “the Library [of Congress’] hand-colored impression of the print was deposited for copyright on December 10, 1814, by Samuel Kennedy.”
William Charles (1776-1820)
Charles was an illustrator, engraver and publisher active in New York and Philadelphia in the first two decades of the 19th century. Born in Scotland, trained in England, and active early in his career in both Edinburgh and London, he probably arrived in New York in or after 1806. The Hartford Convention features the boldly-etched lines and strongly-modeled figures characteristic of his work.
Charles published adult fiction and children’s books, some including his own engravings, but he is best known for caricatures, many lampooning events of the War of 1812. Stauffer lists over 15 such images, a few such as Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians and The Hartford Convention lampooning American military incompetence or sectional differences, but most tweaking Great Britain for its various defeats at American hands. According to Murell, Charles and a business partner at one time planned to issue these monthly in sets of four, but abandoned the project due to lack of subscribers. For all that, Murell asserts that Charles’ political cartoons “arouse[d] more public interest than any produced in America before.”
Library of Congress, American Political Prints, 1776-1876, #1814-2. Murrell, American Graphic Humor, #83. Stauffer, American Engravers, #333. As of November 2018 OCLC #191119914 and 62107505 record only an impressions at the American Antiquarian Society and two at the Library of Congress (one on wove and the other on laid paper). Weitenkampf, Political Caricature in the United States, p. 19 (recording copies at the Huntington, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Library of Congress, Maryland Historical Society, New York Historical Society, and New York Public Library, as well as an example at the NYHS with additional figures and printed in reverse). Another example held at the American Antiquarian Society.