Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Madison Prepares for Annapolis

Towards a Federal Convention

The proposal was an audacious move on the part of the Annapolis delegates. They determined unilaterally that the next meeting was to be a wholesale constitutional convention. It was not that the idea was new; it was merely unpopular. Just a month before the Annapolis Convention met, Madison had estimated that there were probably “many gentlemen” who would have preferred that the Convention have greater powers to reform the Articles. Although Madison himself would have readily endorsed the idea, he believed that the present temper of the country made it a lost cause. He therefore limited his ambitions for the Annapolis Convention to commercial reform, and, as he confessed to Jefferson, “I almost despair even of this.” Why then should the delegates suppose that they would have any better luck in less than a year’s time? 

As it happened, the events within that single year altered the public mood considerably.  The timing of Shays’ Rebellion could not have been better calculated to rally support for the general convention if the rebels had taken up arms explicitly for that purpose. The Massachusetts ruling class, who had previously been very suspicious of centralizing power, moved to the head of the reform movement. Other states followed suit. The continental shift in sentiment was crucial for getting the Constitutional Convention off the ground. The Annapolis delegates could not have foreseen that events would play out in this way, but they were certainly willing to exploit them. Seven of the twelve men who met in Annapolis would meet again in Philadelphia.

Mustering support for a Federal Convention

When the delegates to the Annapolis Convention sent out their report in September, 1786, it was merely a proposal for a new convention. It would take the acquiescence of state and federal governments to make it a plan. Once again, James Madison and the Virginia Assembly took the lead. This time, he was in for a pleasant surprise; his fellow assemblymen exhibited very little truculence compared to past battles over increasing federal power. Alarming news from Massachusetts had begun reaching Virginia, and the legislature unanimously endorsed the idea of a general convention before November was out. But Madison was setting his sights beyond his home state. Deploying Virginia’s greatest asset, he ensured that George Washington’s name be placed at the top of the list of delegates nominated to the Convention. He did this in spite of the General’s deliberate attempts to get out of the appointment. In a letter half-apologizing for this deviation from Washington’s clearly expressed preference, Madison wrote him: “it was the opinion of every judicious friend whom I consulted that your name could not be spared from the Deputation to the meeting in May, at Philadelphia.” He hinted that, if necessary, there would be time before the actual event for Washington to decline the nomination. But in the meantime, broadcasting his name was necessary for ginning up support for the convention in the other states. To ensure that Virginia’s earnest and early endorsement of the upcoming Convention would have the maximum intended impact, the Assembly addressed their authorizing act both to Congress and to the executives of every other state. 

Six other states soon followed Virginia’s lead and likewise voted to accept the invitation to Philadelphia prior to any formal recognition from Congress. Nonetheless it was important to Madison that the plan have the stamp of approval from the central authority as well, weak and ineffectual though it was. Fortunately, he was selected to represent Virginia in Congress the following year. Once there, he again maneuvered the legislative process to secure the votes necessary to pass a resolution endorsing the proposed convention described in the Annapolis Report. But when it finally voted to support the Philadelphia meeting, Congress included a clause that must have dampened Madison’s spirits. The Convention to be held the following May was to be “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” The Congressional Resolution was meant to constrain the Convention’s work to minor repairs; it did not authorize them to demolish and rebuild.

“For the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation” 

This restrictive language has led many people, immediately after the Convention and ever since, to accuse the Framers of exceeding the authority of their commission when they drafted the Constitution. The Framers themselves offered several reasons justifying why they departed from the narrower instructions of Congress. But it is worth asking in what way the Congressional resolution bound the delegates in the first instance; or put another way: from whom did they receive their authority? Each state selected its own delegates, and each one wrote its own instructions for the commission. Only three states included the restrictive language adopted by Congress in their commissions, which means that a large majority of states attended without that restriction. 

Individual states appended additional restrictions that were unique to that state’s peculiar concerns. Massachusetts was among the states granting their commissioners broad powers to amend the Articles, so long as the changes were made “consistent with the true republican spirit and genius of the present articles of Confederation.” Nonetheless, lest “republican spirit” be interpreted too broadly, the authorization explicitly forbad its commissioners to interfere with the annual elections of Congressmen established in the Articles. Similarly, Delaware bound its delegates to retain the equality of votes that the states had enjoyed under the Articles. If it is to be asked whether the Framers exceeded their authority when they scrapped the Articles altogether and started fresh, the stronger charge may be made against those delegates who violated the express mandates of their particular states. But although authority at that time flowed from state governments, not Congress, the state governments were not uniform in their instructions. That was precisely the problem that this Convention was meant to resolve.

“The Business of May Next…”

The Resolution of Congress was passed in February of 1787, and by the end of May, twelve of the thirteen states had embraced the plan to meet in Philadelphia. Although twelve of the thirteen states would send delegates for at least some portion of the Convention, there were never more than eleven represented at any one time. New Hampshire failed to provide its delegates with funding for travel expenses, so their delegates did not arrive until one of them reached into his own pockets to pay the way midway into the summer. By the time they arrived, two New York delegates had left in disgust over the direction the Convention was headed. The one holdout state was, of course, Rhode Island. Rhode Island was often the object of ridicule and invective for its domestic policies, and the state came under increased criticism for its failure to join the other states in Philadelphia. Before the Convention had completed its work that summer, however, the state’s General Assembly protested that they had never really been opposed to the notion of a convention at all. Be that as it may, Rhode Island’s habitual intransigence exasperated many of her sister states.

Amid the events leading up to Philadelphia, we see Madison playing an active leadership role that belies the image—which is sometimes inescapable among many of his biographers – that he was a reclusive scholar who rarely raised his head from his books. In the two years leading up to the Convention, he was the one who led the charge to convene the Annapolis Convention; he helped shape their report; he persuaded the Virginia Assembly to be the first to accept the invitation; and he goaded Congress to make that invitation official. In the next module, we will explore the Madison we are more familiar with: the bookish intellectual.