The Annapolis Convention of 1786 began as an ad-hoc gathering of the states to resolve differences regarding trade and commerce. Such efforts had not succeeded in Congress because of disagreements within that body and chronic absenteeism.
The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781 as the first official government of the United States, tightly restricted the power of Congress. The limitations and voting requirements made any legislation, enforcement, or revision of the Articles difficult, as a small number of states (five of thirteen) could block important legislation, and just one could block amendments. Problems with the system of government—strong, individual states and a weak central government—became clear quickly, especially in matters of trade and finance. Some state leaders called for a trade conference, without the involvement of Congress, in hopes they could ease these difficulties. In January 1786 Virginia's governor, Patrick Henry, invited each state to a convention set for the first Monday the following September in Annapolis, Maryland.
Only five states attended the Annapolis Convention, represented by twelve delegates. John Dickinson, George Read, and Richard Bassett represented Delaware. New Jersey sent Abraham Clark, William Churchill Houston, and James Schureman. Alexander Hamilton and Egbert Benson arrived from New York, and one delegate, Tench Coxe, represented Pennsylvania. James Madison, Edmund Randolph, and St. George Tucker of Virginia completed the assemblage. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Rhode Island appointed delegates who either did not make the trip or arrived after the convention had adjourned. The four remaining states—Connecticut, Maryland, Georgia, and South Carolina—did not even appoint delegates.
The convention officially began on 11 September and lasted four days. The delegates first elected John Dickinson as the chair of the convention, then read their instructions from their respective state legislatures. They quickly agreed that with so few states represented, and with such differing instructions, a new convention should be called. The group unanimously appointed Delegates Benson, Clarke, Coxe, Read, and Randolph to draft a report to submit to the states and Congress. On 13 September the committee presented its report, drafted by Hamilton, to the larger group. It called for a new convention in Philadelphia, beginning the second Monday of May 1787, to address not just matters of trade, but "the general System of the federal government" as well. On 14 September the delegates approved the report and adjourned.
Congress took up the Annapolis recommendation on 11 October 1786, appointing a committee to consider the report. After intense debate, the committee recommended on 21 February that Congress endorse the proposed Philadelphia Convention, which it did with little further controversy. Seven states had appointed delegates to the Philadelphia Convention even before Congress's approval. The remaining states, except Rhode Island, had appointed delegates by May 1787.
Scholars of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 generally recognize the Annapolis Convention as an important step toward the new constitution. Yet they usually portray it as a failure. Because so few states attended, the convention could accomplish none of its objectives, making a new convention necessary. The Annapolis Convention is also seen as proof of the failure of the Articles of Confederation; some historians have addressed it in regional terms, asserting that regional divisions in Congress necessitated outside efforts such as the Annapolis Convention. Others, however see the 1786 conference as a turning point in the minds of leaders such as James Madison toward support for a new central government. Additionally, the Annapolis Convention was a turning point for the country, as it was the first conference to meet, whereas previous efforts had come to nothing, to consider constitutional reform. Further, it established a model for the Philadelphia Convention. Previously, the question had often arisen of how to revise the Articles, as just one state could repeatedly block reform attempts in Congress. Rather than a failure, the Annapolis Convention showed the potential for an extra-congressional assembly, and thus enabled the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Banning, Lance. The Sacred Fire of Liberty: James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Davis, Joseph L. Sectionalism in American Politics, 1774–1787. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977.
Hamilton, Alexander. "Annapolis Convention. Address of the Annapolis Convention." In The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by Harold C. Syrett, vol. 3, pp. 686–689. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.
Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Cheryl R. Collins
ANNAPOLIS CONVENTION. In January 1786, the Virginia legislature invited other states to send commissioners to a meeting where proposals granting the Continental Congress authority to regulate commerce would be discussed. Congress had previously sought similar authority, but its proposed amendment to the Articles of Confederation had failed to secure the required ratification by all thirteen states. The Virginia commissioners eventually fixed a mid-September meeting date at Annapolis, Maryland. Although eight states appointed commissioners, only a dozen delegates from five states appeared at Mann's Tavern in Annapolis by September 11. Those present included James Madison and Edmund Randolph from Virginia; John Dickinson, the principal author of the Articles of Confederation, from Delaware; and Alexander Hamilton from New York. With so few commissioners present, the convention could hardly act with any authority. Yet neither did its members want to disband empty handed, for doing so would concede another setback in their efforts to strengthen the Confederation. Seizing on a clause in the credentials of the New Jersey delegates, the commissioners endorsed a report, drafted primarily by Hamilton, calling for a general convention to assemble in Philadelphia the following May, for the purpose of considering the condition of the federal Union.
In 1785 a few nationalists led by james madison and alexander hamilton sought desperately to preserve the Union of the states under the articles of confederation. Congress seemed inept and powerless. The chances that the United States might "Balkanize" seemed likely. As early as 1782 Hamilton had proposed a convention of the states to reassess their union. In 1785 delegates from Maryland and Virginia met in Alexandria to reconcile their mutual interests in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. Madison promoted the plan of a convention of delegates from all of the states to consider augmenting the powers of Congress over commerce. Maryland and Virginia agreed on the call of such a convention in Annapolis in September 1786, and they invited all the states to send delegates.
When the Annapolis Convention met, only five states were in attendance. Undaunted, Hamilton and Madison made the best of the situation by framing a report, which those in attendance unanimously adopted, critical of the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation and urging still another convention of all the states to assemble in Philadelphia in May 1787. The purpose of that convention would be to "take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such other provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union," and to report recommendations to Congress for confirmation by the states.
Thus, the Annapolis Convention was significant for calling the meeting that became the Philadelphia constitutional convention of 1787. shays ' rebellion assisted the Confederation Congress in making up its mind to endorse the work of the Annapolis Convention. Confronted by the fact that the states were already electing delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, Congress saved face by issuing its own call for that convention in the language used by the Annapolis Convention.
Leonard W. Levy