Annapolis Convention of 1786
The Annapolis Convention of 1786 was the first major meeting held to discuss the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. Five states attended to discuss the topic of trade agreements that would lay the foundations for the Constitutional Convention to follow a year later. From the establishment of the United States under the Articles of Confederation in 1781, difficulties had arisen in the federal government’s management of the confederation of individual state legislatures. Grown out of a loose alliance meant to govern in a time of war, Congress soon became incapable of solving the domestic problems that emerged in a new nation. Central to these problems were state trade disputes and competing claims to territory in the move of westward expansion. After many states bordering the frontier simultaneously claimed land tracts in the West, as well as in the face of rising objections of coastal states on their inability to respond in kind, Congress recognized the need to settle the issue of westward expansion. The passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1784 designated great tracts of land as territories subject to federal government rule. However, there existed no system of federal courts under the Articles of Confederation to hear conflicting disputes between states regarding unclaimed federal land. Instead, there existed only a complicated system of arbitration by Congress. Realizing that the expansion of territory was of national concern, Congress authorized a limited regular army to occupy the frontier, but state claims to the land prevented further extension of the national government westward.
Recognizing these conflicts in regard to their own borders, Virginia and Maryland embarked on a series of meetings to discuss mutually beneficial solutions. These series of meetings would eventually lead to the Annapolis Convention of 1786. In December 1784, James Madison of Virginia succeeded in setting up a meeting in Annapolis between the two states to discuss the mutual development of the Potomac River, which bordered both states, in an effort to promote the river as a gateway to the West. The result was the creation of the Patowmack Company, formed in 1785 to encourage development on the Potomac and to arbitrate claims of river use. A second conference occurred in Alexandria, Virginia, in March 1785 to discuss commercial issues regarding the Chesapeake Bay. Upon the conclusion of that meeting, it was decided that a larger meeting discussing broader national commercial interests be held the following year with all states attending. In January 1786, Virginia invited the 13 states to attend a convention in Annapolis in September.
The Annapolis Convention began on September 11, 1786. Though all 13 states had been invited, in attendance were delegates from only five: Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina had appointed commissioners, but these commissioners did not arrive in time for the meeting. Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia had not appointed commissioners. Formal proceedings began on September 11 when John Dickinson of Delaware, the author of the Articles of the Confederation, was appointed chairman. The 5 states proceeded to discuss problems of trade and commerce for the following three days with very similar objectives. The legislatures of all 5 states in attendance had empowered their commissioners to discuss a uniform system of trade and regulation that would then be presented to the states for ratification. Upon ratification, Congress would be authorized to act to promote and regulate this system. However, the commissioners soon foresaw that other complications would arise regarding larger political issues. These larger complications, which the commissioners were not authorized to discuss, as well as the absence of 8 of the 13 states, convinced the participating states that a larger convention would be necessary.
The major accomplishment of the Annapolis Convention was the call for a federal convention to be attended by all states the following year to address broader problems of governance under the Articles of Confederation. The draft of “Proceedings of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government,” the report of the Annapolis Convention commissioners, was written by Alexander Hamilton of New York on September 14, 1786, and a copy of the finished text was carried back to the states’ legislatures, as well as Congress, for consideration. This report called on all states to commit themselves to a nationwide convention the following year with delegates from all 13 states in attendance. On September 19, 1786, the Maryland Journal printed the first report on the Annapolis Convention and approved of its findings. On February 21, 1787, Congress endorsed the commissioners’ call for a federal convention to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787. This convention in Philadelphia would become the Constitutional Convention in which the Articles were not reformed, but rather abandoned in favor of the creation of an entirely new government.
Gaillard Hunt, The Life of James Madison (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968); Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Vintage Books, 1997); and U.S. Department of State, Documentary History of the Constitution of the United States of America, vol. 1 (Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman & Company, 1998).
Last updated: 2006