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The Annapolis Convention

Written by: Jack Rakove, Stanford University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how different forms of government developed and changed as a result of the Revolutionary Period

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Decision Point immediately following The Articles of Confederation, 1781 Primary Source to help provide students with context for the Constitutional Convention.

On September 12, 1786, a dozen commissioners from five states gathered at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, just down the street from the Maryland state house. Their assigned task was to discuss measures to enable the Confederation Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. Instead, when they adjourned two days later, the commissioners had adopted a very different resolution. They invited the states to send commissioners to a second convention, to assemble at Philadelphia in May 1787. Its proposed task would be much more ambitious and open ended. It would “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.” The delegates to the Philadelphia Convention would then report their proposed changes to Congress as potential amendments to the Confederation.

The Annapolis commissioners were a small but politically sophisticated group. They included John Dickinson, the lead framer of the Articles of Confederation; Alexander Hamilton, who had served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp through much of the Revolutionary War; James Madison, a veteran member of Congress and Virginia legislator; and Edmund Randolph, soon to become Virginia’s governor. Each believed the Articles of Confederation badly needed amendment; each thought the United States needed a true national government. Each was frustrated by the failure of every previous effort to secure the unanimous approval of all thirteen state legislatures, which was required to amend the Articles.

Portraits are shown from left to right of John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph.

Delegates to the Annapolis Convention included luminaries such as (a) John Dickinson, (b) Alexander Hamilton, (c) James Madison, and (d) Edmund Randolph.

The Annapolis Convention thus marked a decisive moment in the movement for constitutional reform. Before that point, those who believed the Articles of Confederation left the Continental Congress too weak to govern effectively had followed a strategy of piecemeal reform, hoping the adoption of individual amendments would make people less fearful of the risks of further changes. The first proposed amendment went to the states in February 1781. It would have allowed Congress to collect an impost (or duty) on foreign goods, which it could use primarily to encourage foreign states and investors to loan money to the United States. This amendment failed when tiny Rhode Island refused to approve it and Virginia repealed its initial endorsement.

In April 1783, after extensive debate, Congress proposed a new package of financial amendments, including a revised impost and a proposal to allocate the common expenses of the union among the states not on the basis of land values, as the Articles required, but according to population, with each enslaved African American counting as three-fifths of a free person. A year later, Congress responded to a worsening commercial depression by proposing two more amendments that would vest it with some authority over interstate and foreign commerce. British imports were flooding American markets and threatening the livelihoods of American artisans, while imperial harbors were closed to American ships, thus threatening the profits of American merchants.

None of these amendments secured the required ratification of all thirteen state legislatures. One particular problem was the militant opposition of Rhode Island, one of the nation’s least populous states. Even so, Congress was still considering other amendments in the summer of 1786, when a committee chaired by Charles Pinckney drafted a report with another half-dozen proposals.

By then, however, a different path to reform had emerged in Virginia. At the start of the 1785 Virginia legislation session, Madison began urging his colleagues to endorse the idea of granting Congress permanent regulatory powers over commerce. During the ensuing debates, however, the assembly whittled the proposal down to a point where Madison decided it would be better to do nothing than to pursue a policy that seemed too weak to work. Yet just as the session was closing, a resolution was moved calling for an interstate convention to discuss the idea of giving Congress adequate power over commerce. Madison was not its author, and he initially doubted its prospects. He supported the resolution because it was “better than nothing,” but he still thought that it was “liable to objections and will probably miscarry.”

Yet by the early spring of 1786, when the Virginia commissioners set Annapolis in September as the place and time of meeting, Madison had shifted his opinion. Writing to James Monroe, who had taken his place in the Virginia congressional delegation, Madison argued that “the efforts of bringing about a correction thro’ the medium of Congress have miscarried.” Some other tactic had to be tried. If the planned convention worked in this first instance, it could be repeated again “as the public mind becomes prepared for further remedies.”

The idea of holding a convention to propose constitutional changes remained a source of uncertainty. The Articles of Confederation were quite specific about the rules for their amendment. Changes had to be proposed by Congress, with a supermajority of nine states, and then ratified by all thirteen legislatures. Even holding a convention could be criticized as an insult to Congress and thus work to weaken its authority. Some members jealously guarded the power of the states and resisted the idea of centralizing power in the national government.

Yet the idea of holding a general constitutional convention was not a novelty. Such a proposal had been discussed in the early 1780s. Its strongest supporters were to be found in the officer corps of the Continental Army, arguably the one group whose bitter experience during the war left them most inclined to support a radical strengthening of national authority. No one had a better grasp of the weaknesses of the Confederation, because from one year to the next, they had repeatedly seen how difficult it was for Congress to muster adequate supplies, money, and troops from the states. Their commander in chief, George Washington, may have been a Virginia gentleman, but from 1776 on, he was also a strong nationalist.

Alexander Hamilton shared these nationalist views. After resigning his commission in the Continental Army, Hamilton served in the New York legislature and the Continental Congress in 1782–1783. Once in Congress, he came to know Madison quite well, and together they must have discussed the tactics of constitutional reform. Yet Hamilton was more of a political adventurer than Madison. In 1783, Hamilton was toying with the idea of having Congress issue a call for a general constitutional convention. He abandoned that project because he knew it would not muster the requisite support. But the basic idea retained its appeal.

By the summer of 1786, the deteriorating political situation dictated the conclusions that Hamilton, Madison, and the other Annapolis commissioners now shared. Nevertheless, their decision to propose a general convention to meet in Philadelphia was risky. Not only did it involve a radical change in political strategy, it also marked a desperate gamble with an uncertain outcome. The Continental Congress was essentially bankrupt, and most of the states were balking at levying and collecting the taxes needed to fulfill their financial obligations to the union. And although most nationally oriented political leaders agreed that Congress needed to have its independent sources of revenue and the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, there was no firm agreement on what the agenda of a general convention would be.

The appeal issued by the Annapolis Convention was a dangerous gamble, taken by a group of twelve leaders who had no confident idea of how it would turn out. In the spring of 1787, no one was sure whether the Philadelphia Convention would be able to meet the challenges that faced the teetering republic.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following components of the Articles of Confederation frustrated advocates of its reform?

  1. The idea that the power belonged with the people of the United States
  2. The government’s lack of a judicial mediating body
  3. The requirement for unanimous agreement on any change to the document
  4. The rule that politicians’ pay came from the states and not the federal government

2. Which of the following is not true of the economic situation faced by the United States in the 1780s?

  1. British harbors were closed to American exports, hurting the opportunities for profitable trade.
  2. British goods were flooding American markets, making it extremely difficult for American merchants to be successful.
  3. State debts from the Revolution were extremely high, limiting the government’s ability to address other needs.
  4. French support continued after the .war, allowing an influx of money to buoy the new economy in the short term

3. Why did some politicians fiercely protect the rights of the states in the Articles of Confederation over the idea of a centralized government?

  1. They wanted strict adherence to the Patriotic cause, which had freed them from a tyrant king and parliament that abused its power.
  2. A central government would require negotiations with other foreign powers, costing thousands of dollars the country didn’t have.
  3. Every citizen was represented by the current government and politicians did not want to risk changing that.
  4. The Articles were so successful in handling foreign and domestic affairs that a centralized government was not necessary.

4. What group was especially open to the idea of a more powerful central government, because of their experience during the Revolutionary War?

  1. Women who had supported the troops by sewing clothes, providing food, and even fighting on the frontlines but were never recognized by the current government
  2. African Americans who had fought in the war but were never given the freedom they were promised
  3. Veterans who had suffered without adequate food, supplies, and compensation and were acutely aware of the need for a stronger governmental authority
  4. Children who had been orphaned during the war and desired an authority figure to guide them through their early adult years

5. Which of the following events led many nationalists to articulate the need for a centralized government and lay the foundation for the meeting that would achieve it?

  1. Bacon’s Rebellion
  2. Northwest Ordinance
  3. Shays’ Rebellion
  4. Treaty of Paris

6. What was the original intent of the Annapolis Convention?

  1. To undertake a complete rewrite of the national government and create a stronger executive branch
  2. To articulate a better way for the government to regulate interstate and foreign commerce
  3. To elect George Washington to take temporary command of the country through this troubling time
  4. To petition France to admit the country to the French Empire for protection against Great Britain

7. Who did not support the idea of strengthening the national government by amending or altering the Articles of Confederation?

  1. Patrick Henry
  2. James Madison
  3. Alexander Hamilton
  4. George Washington

8. Which of the following describes the primary issue that galvanized nationalists to try to reform the Articles of Confederation?

  1. The government’s inability to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, especially in the face of economic adversity
  2. Excessive printing of a national currency, causing inflation and speculation
  3. Inept handling of the admission of new states into the union
  4. Increased taxation on foreign goods, making them more expensive than citizens could afford

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain why the Annapolis Convention marked a decisive moment in the movement for constitutional reform.
  2. Explain why each of the following supported the Annapolis Convention:
    • James Madison
    • The officer corps of the Continental army and their commander in chief, George Washington
    • Alexander Hamilton

AP Practice Questions

“That there are important defects in the system of the Federal Government is acknowledged by the Acts of all those States, which have concurred in the present Meeting; That the defects, upon a closer examination, may be found greater and more numerous, than even these acts imply, is at least so far probable, from the embarrassments which characterise the present State of our national affairs—foreign and domestic, as may reasonably be supposed to merit a deliberate and candid discussion, in some mode, which will unite the Sentiments and Councils of all the States. In the choice of the mode your Commissioners are of opinion, that a Convention of Deputies from the different States, for the special and sole purpose of entering into this investigation, and digesting a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered to exist, will be entitled to a preference from consideration, which will occur, without being particularised.”

Address of the Annapolis Convention, 1786

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which of the following was a direct result of the sentiments explained in the excerpt provided?

  1. A later meeting was set to discuss in-depth changes to the Articles of Confederation.
  2. A reform meeting was cancelled and the Articles were left unamended.
  3. Delegates from the convention published a manifesto outlining all possible changes.
  4. A new process was chosen to bring states into the Union.

2. Which of the following gives the excerpt historical context?

  1. Ineffective government control of interstate commerce and chaotic domestic rebellions
  2. A successful international alliance with France and the waging of the Revolution
  3. Creation of the Northwest Ordinance Treaty of 1787
  4. Continued respect between British merchants and U.S. manufacturers

“The disinclination of the individual States to yield competent powers to Congress for the [Federal] Government—their unreasonable jealousy of that body & of one another—& the disposition which seems to pervade each, of being all-wise & all-powerful within itself, will, if there is not a change in the system, be our [downfall] as a Nation. This is as clear to me as the A, B.C.; & I think we have opposed Great Britain, & have arrived at the present state of peace & independency, to very little purpose, if we cannot conquer our own prejudices. The powers of Europe begin to see this, & our newly acquired friends the British, are already & professedly acting upon this ground; & wisely too, if we are determined to persevere in our folly. They know that individual opposition to their measures is futile, &boast that we are not sufficiently united as a Nation to give a general one! Is not the indignity alone, of this declaration, while we are in the very act of peace-making & conciliation, sufficient to stimulate us to vest more extensive & adequate powers in the sovereign of these United States?”

From George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, January 18, 1784

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. Which characteristic of the Articles of Confederation was the focus of reform for the Annapolis Convention?

  1. Most of the power belonged to the states, which were unwilling to work together.
  2. Most of the power belonged to the national government, which could regulate commerce.
  3. Any reform to the document required a simple majority to enact that change.
  4. An electoral college submitted its votes for the executive branch.

4. Which Revolutionary idea and prevailing political norm was challenged by the address provided?

  1. A stronger national government would be better able to regulate interstate issues.
  2. Power should remain as local as possible, residing mostly in the state governments.
  3. Voter requirements should be relaxed so that as many people as possible could vote.
  4. A national leader is required for situations that require quick decisive action.

5. The excerpt reflects a growing belief among a small group of elite individuals that

  1. domestic issues had largely been handled successfully by the Articles
  2. international issues had largely been handled successfully by the Articles
  3. the authority and jurisdiction of the Federal Government needed to be augmented
  4. the alliance with France needed to be discontinued because it was a monarchy

“An attack was made on Thursday last by a party of Insurgents under Shays, upon the troops commanded by General Shephard at Springfield. . . . Shays retreated that night to Ludlow, and the next day marched to Chicabee.”

Hampshire Gazette Newspaper in Massachusetts Account of Shays’ Rebellion, January 1787

Refer to the excerpt provided.

6. The “Insurgents” described in the newspaper article provided were most likely influenced by which of the following?

  1. Heavy taxes levied by the British government to pay for French and Indian War debt
  2. Increasing taxes levied by the states to pay American Revolutionary War debt
  3. Attacks by American Indians on the frontier that threatened their settlement
  4. The risk of oppressive plantation owners striking out against individual enslaved people

7. What was an indirect result of the turmoil caused by actions such as the one described in the article provided?

  1. The First Continental Congress
  2. The Boston Massacre
  3. The Boston Tea Party
  4. The Philadelphia Convention

Primary Sources

Suggested Resources

Meyerson, Michael I. Liberty’s Blueprint: How Madison and Hamilton Wrote the Federalist Papers, Defined the Constitution, and Made Democracy Safe for the World. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Morris, Richard B. Witnesses at the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay, and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.

Williams, Tony. America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events That Shaped a Nation’s Character. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.

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