Most narratives on the events leading to the federal convention in Philadelphia begin with the Mount Vernon meeting of 1785, in which delegates from Virginia and Maryland discussed various issues involving commerce along their common border, the Potomac River. Other narratives, like those from Article V opponents, start with the congressional call to convention in February 1787. Both neglect earlier attempts to correct the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation (AC). In previous posts to this series, we learned that congressionally proposed amendments to the still-to-be-ratified AC regarding nationwide taxation and regulation of commerce went back to 1781. By 1785, two states, Massachusetts and New York had recommended a convention of the states to address the chronic problems of non-government under the AC.1
Virginia and Maryland, being pleased with the course of negotiations at Mount Vernon, suggested Pennsylvania and Delaware join them in Annapolis in September 1786 to discuss a wider range of commercial issues. Indicative of the distrust between southern agricultural and northern carrying states, Virginia actually considered if it would be better to grant preferences to British shipping over American shipping. Action was needed to keep the union.2
Delegates from the five states in attendance at Annapolis adopted a report. It recommended all states gather in convention at Philadelphia in May 1787, “to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Furthermore, it recommended the findings of the convention be forwarded to congress for subsequent approval and ratification by every state legislature. Although the commissioners declared that they could properly address only the states, “from motives of respect,” they sent the Annapolis report to congress as well as the state governments.3
Like trying to board a moving train, and after seven states had already resolved to attend the Philadelphia convention, congress adopted the wording of the Annapolis report, and called for a convention that was going to meet regardless of any congressional resolution.4 In a pointless gesture, congress, on February 7th 1787, called for a convention to meet at Philadelphia, “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.”5
Shays’ Rebellion, from August of 1786 to February of 1787, convinced Massachusetts to send delegates to Philadelphia. The effect of Shays went far beyond the borders of MA; it “deepened the conviction that a more efficient national government was essential.”6 Similar rumblings and attempts to stop mortgage foreclosure proceedings occurred in other states. On June 12th, arsonists burned down the King William County courthouse in Virginia to destroy county records.7 The Massachusetts’ constitution of 1780, drafted by John Adams, was regarded as the best in the union. If popular discontent blew up in MA, what would the future hold under less well-designed governments? From the lessons learned at the Newburgh NY mutiny attempt in 1783, congress feared sending a regiment it couldn’t pay to put down Shays.
Just a month before the Philadelphia convention, James Madison penned a pamphlet, Vices of the Political System of the United States. He praised the “enthusiastic virtue of the compilers” of the AC who trusted, on faith, a simple republican ethic and morality of newly independent state legislatures. In Vices, Madison put to paper an analysis rooted in his research of past confederations, republics and his experience as a congressional delegate and Virginia legislator.
First, the states often did not comply with congressional resolutions in general, and requisitions (revenue requests) in particular. This was common among confederacies and fatal to the purposes of the American Union. Toss in encroachments by the states on federal authority, violations of treaties, violations of the rights of other states, and no coercive power at all in congress, Madison spun a tight indictment against the confederation. The AC was a league, a series of mutual treaties among thirteen republics. As Madison explained, it “follows from the doctrine of compacts, that a breach of any of the articles of the confederation by any of the parties to it, absolves the other parties from their respective obligations, and gives them a right if they choose to exert it, of dissolving the Union altogether.”
Vices was an outline of deficiencies he intended to correct at the federal convention . . . with a republic.
The 1787 federal convention wasn’t a black swan event, nor even an outlier. Rather than an illegal conspiracy, it was the culmination of related efforts to create a lasting union that put the principles of the Declaration of Independence into practice.
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- McLaughlin, A. C. (1905). The Confederation and the Constitution. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. pgs. 174-175.
- Ibid., pgs. 180-181.
- Ibid., p. 182.
- Various. (1990). The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin. p. xviii. The seven are NJ, VA, PA, NC, NH, DE, and GA.
- McLaughlin, A. C. (1905). The Confederation and the Constitution. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. p. 183.
- Burnett, E. C. (1941). The Continental Congress: A Definitive History of the Continental Congress from its Inception in 1774 to March, 1789. New York: W.W. Norton Company. p. 672.
- Banning, L. (1995). The Sacred Fire of Liberty – James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 444.