Sometimes great events have humble beginnings—so it was with the Constitutional Convention. The road to Philadelphia began with a small private meeting between delegates of only two states: Maryland and Virginia. These states had chartered The Potomac River Company, a private company dedicated to making the river navigable into the western territories. Their motivations for doing so were both economic and political. Not only did these improvements promise great commercial advantage for their backers, but providing an easy access to the northwestern territories was imperative for keeping them out of the hands of the British. Virginia and Maryland, however, had been at odds for some time over conflicting claims to the Potomac River; therefore, this conference was called for the limited purpose of settling those differences and easing the way for The Potomac River Company to do its work.
The Conference did not have an auspicious beginning. Although promising men from Virginia were appointed to attend – including George Mason, James Madison, and Edmund Randolph – Virginia’s Governor Patrick Henry failed to inform them after Maryland chose the date for the conference. Mason showed up (along with another Virginian delegate, Alexander Henderson), in spite of having no formal commission to present their credentials to their Maryland counterparts. Madison and Randolph did not even find out about the meeting until after it was over. In spite of these glitches, the planned meeting did have one ace in the hole: it had the backing of George Washington. Washington had been an ardent supporter of the scheme long before he had secured the backing of Virginia and Maryland, and he was then serving as The Potomac River Company’s first president. Washington had not been named as a delegate to this conference, but he nonetheless paid a visit to the participants meeting in nearby Alexandria. He invited the entire company to remove from the tavern where they were staying and enjoy the comforts of his own home. They accepted, and their meeting was henceforth dubbed the Mount Vernon Conference and the agreement they reached the Mount Vernon Compact.
The Compact, once ratified by of both state legislatures, accomplished the limited purposes the conference had set for itself. The conflicting claims over the river were resolved, and the agreement even provided for other matters of interstate comity: such as the payment of duties and jurisdiction over crimes committed on the Potomac. But the Compact did something else that was even more significant: it established the protocol whereby the two states would meet regularly to settle future commercial disputes as they arose—delegates from both states would meet whenever either requested. The authors of the compact even made overtures to Pennsylvania to join them in future meetings over matters that mutually concerned the three states. This feature of the compact was important both as a precedent and as the doorway which would open upon an even more ambitious plan to coordinate commercial activity among all the states.
James Madison led the charge to ratify the Mount Vernon Compact in Virginia’s Assembly. But Madison had grander ambitions in mind. He wanted Virginia to initiate the process whereby the Articles themselves could be amended to give Congress greater control over commerce. When his proposal failed to win support in Virginia’s legislature, he changed tacks. Building upon the Mount Vernon Compact’s provisions that two or even three states might meet at future dates, albeit for the limited purpose of addressing issues arising from the Potomac, Madison instead engineered a proposal that a general convention be called—one to which all the states would be invited—for the purpose of addressing any and all commercial concerns. This idea was a small but significant step toward the call for a Constitutional Convention.
Originating from Madison’s proposal in the Virginia Assembly, all thirteen states were invited to meet at Mann’s Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland, on the first Monday in September, 1786. But the circumstances leading up to this momentous event were not favorable to its success. Virginia was the only southern state to send delegates, and many New England states likewise gave the meeting the cold shoulder. The last thing these states wanted to do was give Congress greater control over commerce. Only five states met at the appointed time—an insufficient number to reach a quorum. Even Maryland failed to send any delegates, and they were hosting the event. But this passive boycott by all those who held the most parochial views effectually meant that the delegates who did show up – twelve in all – were uniformly members who held the strongest nationalist sentiment.
The delegates did not wait long before giving up on the proposed object of their meeting. Indeed, their hasty decision to declare the meeting a failure may have been an intentional decision to push their luck. In actuality, there were other delegates who were en route to Maryland, but the assembled delegates decided not wait to find out who else might be attending. Instead, they decided to go for broke. They proposed a Convention for the following year that would be given far greater scope than the Annapolis Convention had been given.
The proposal was drafted by Alexander Hamilton, who had for years been lobbying for radical changes in the Articles. The ever-cautious Edmund Randolph, however, balked at some of the fiery language Hamilton wanted to employ, and Madison convinced him to tone down the rhetoric. The resulting firm but dispassionate report recommended a convention “to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next” for the purpose of “digesting a plan for supplying such defects as may be discovered to exist.” After citing the need to render “the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union,” it closed with a deferential appeal to authority, making clear that any proposed changes to the government that proceeded from this convention would be subject to the approval of Congress and “the Legislatures of every State.” The new convention might suggest some radical changes to the Articles, but the report promised that those changes would only be adopted following the amendment process described in the Articles. Their report was then sent to Congress and the Executives of each state. The entirety of the Annapolis Convention lasted just four days.