Friday, September 12, 2014

228 Years Ago: The Annapolis Convention of 1786

Many visitors to Maryland's capital city don’t realize that Washington’s resignation and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris were not the only significant national events to take place in eighteenth-century Annapolis. On September 11 through September 14, 1786, delegates from Congress who were elected as commissioners descended upon the city once again in the hopes of meeting to determine the course of American government. While poor attendance prevented much progress at the Annapolis Convention of 1786, its impact on the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and the resulting United States Constitution cannot be ignored.

A famous depiction of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, where the Constitution was signed. This gathering is considered by many to be a direct result of the Annapolis Convention of 1786. Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940, courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States government found itself without money, unable to even offer soldiers’ their pay, and in the midst of an economic depression. Furthermore, Congress found that it could take few measures to resolve this problem as the lack of a unified currency, among other things prevented ease in interstate state trading. Public unrest became a constant problem and though many rebellions were quickly squashed, Shays’ Rebellion in particular threatened the new government from August 1786 until February 1787. It was clear to delegates that something would need to be done.

Originally called the Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government, delegates from states were instructed to meet at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis in September 1786 to formulate a response to the new country’s crisis. Delegates attending hoped to come to a resolution on how they would be able to improve the Articles of Confederation. Attendees to the Convention included notable figures such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.

Portrait of James Madison by Charles Willson Peale, 1783. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. After the Convention of 1786, Madison returned to the State House in 1790 when he and Thomas Jefferson took a famous trip to the dome.

However, much like the attendance problem faced by Congress in December 1783, once again, many states failed to show up. After speaking to some of the delegates upon their return to Philadelphia, Massachusetts delegate Rufus King wrote, “I learn that Delegates from only five states assembled at Annapolis, that the powers of these Five were materially different; and that from a consideration of the small number of States which had sent Delegates, but more especially since the Authorities of the Delegates assembled were so essentially different...they had agreed in a recommendation to the states that a convention of Delegates should be held in Philadelphia in May next for a general Revision of the confederation.”[1] King was undoubtedly shaken by this news and wrote to Elbridge Gerry (who, back in 1783, had helped to prepare the protocol for Washington’s resignation), “What events are to determine the condition of our country are unknown or in the volume of Futurity. Be assured that the very worse is reasonably to be apprehended.”[2]

Ultimately, little could be done at the Annapolis Convention of 1786. However, the commissioners in attendance did form one report, understanding the country’s situation to be “of a nature so serious, as, in the view of your Commissioners to render the situation of the United States delicate and critical, calling for an exertion of the united virtue and wisdom of all the members of the Confederacy.”[3] The commissioners in Annapolis called for a second, larger convention to meet again in May in Philadelphia. This constitutional convention attracted a much larger crowd, including George Washington, who had been elected by the commissioners to preside over the convention. As a result of the Philadelphia Convention, the United States Constitution was born.

Maryland's contribution to the United States Constitution did not end there, however. In April 1788, the Maryland Ratification Convention was held in the Old House of Delegates Chamber of the State House. Maryland ultimately became the seventh state to ratify the United States Constitution, agreeing to the document, but began discussion of several additional amendments that, along with several other states, helped to begin the development of what we know as the Bill of Rights today.

[1] Smith, Paul H., ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 2000, vol. 23, p.560-561. Rufus King to James Bowdoin, 17 September 1786.
[2] Smith, Paul H., vol. 23, p.562-563. Rufus King to Elbridge Gerry, 17 September 1786.
[3] “Proceedings of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government,” 11 September 1786, Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States. Library of Congress, Government Printing Office, 1927. House Document No. 398.

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