The Annapolis Convention

It took several decades to turn thirteen separate colonies into the United States of America. The process began as early as the French and Indian War and led colonists from various regions to assert American rights to self-government through Committees of Correspondence and other informal, extralegal means. The practical result of these first steps was the creation of the Continental Congress, an assembly of delegates sent to Philadelphia by the provisional governments of the thirteen colonies. It was this "states in congress assembled" that proclaimed Independence on July 4,1776. During the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress assumed the functions of a national government, financing the Continental Army and directing the war effort. It sought allies for the Patriot cause and in the end its representatives signed the Treaty of Paris in which Britain recognized the United States. This event, however, only ended the combat—the task of producing a unified nation remained.

Congress tried to establish a basic governmental framework with the Articles of Confederation, ratified by the states in 1781. But the central government remained little more than a loose wartime alliance of independent states, and Congress, under the Articles, experienced serious difficulty in restoring a war-torn economy, regulating foreign trade, and protecting and developing the frontier between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Congress did accept the notion that security was a national responsibility, and in June 1784 it authorized, on a temporary basis, a small peacetime Regular Army to occupy frontier forts. Competing state territorial claims, however, blocked plans for extending national government to the region.

George Washington, who emerged as a leading nationalist, was particularly concerned with the future of the west. He understood the region's vast potential and urged the development of rivers and roads as the means of keeping the frontier settlers tied to the union. In 1784 his colleague, James Madison, took a positive step toward realizing the general's goal by setting up a meeting at Annapolis in December between Maryland and Virginia (represented by Washington) to discuss the development of the Potomac River as a route to the west. There the states formed a corporation, the Patowmack Company, to improve the waterway and settled disputes over the upper reaches of the river.

Madison succeeded in arranging another conference between the two states in March 1785 at Alexandria, Virginia. Washington encouraged the commissioners, hosting some of the sessions at his plantation, and the "Mount Vernon Compact," signed on 28 March, settled the outstanding issues regarding the use of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Before departing, the commissioners recommended that yet another meeting with an expanded agenda be called, this time to include representatives from other nearby states. In January 1786, Virginia invited all the states to a special meeting at Annapolis in September to discuss commercial issues.

Madison, who had been a key figure in Virginia's initiative, arrived in Annapolis on 4 September and took up lodging at George Mann's Tavern, which became the site of the Annapolis Convention. He was soon joined by eleven other elected representatives from five states. Their informal discussions preceded the opening session on 11 September, when Delaware's John Dickinson, the elder statesman of the group and author of the Articles of Confederation, was chosen chairman. The delegates agreed that the absence of so many states and the differing instructions given to the delegates would prevent the meeting from accomplishing its stated purpose. But the strong nationalism of the dozen men, seven of whom had served under arms during the Revolution, led them to decide to use the opportunity to express their views in a report to the individual state legislatures and Congress.

Virtually everyone agreed that the question of trade regulation could not be divorced from larger political issues, an area that the delegates had no authority to discuss. One delegate, apparently Abraham Clark of New Jersey, therefore suggested that the report recommend another meeting explicitly empowered to frame measures to strengthen the Articles. When the others agreed, Alexander Hamilton prepared a draft with the assistance of Madison and Edmund Jennings Randolph. The full convention then polished the text before adjourning on the afternoon of the 14th. Each delegation carried a copy of the report back to its own legislature, while Dickinson delivered a copy to Congress. On 21 February that body endorsed the call for a convention to meet in Philadelphia on the second Monday in May of 1787—the convention that would write the Constitution.

On 19 September 1786 the Maryland Journal printed the first public notice about the Annapolis Convention. Its author commented, "Should this Address have its Effect, we may hope to see the Federal Union of these States established upon Principles, which will secure the



(All dates are "New Style")


19 November 1732-14 February 1808
BIRTH: "Croisiadore," Talbot County, Md.
DEATH: Wilmington, Del.

Middle Temple, London, England

Militia, 4 years
Highest rank: Brigadier General

Colonial legislature, 9 years; Continental Congress, 4 years; Governor of Pennsylvania, 4 years; Governor of Delaware, 1 year

*BASSETT, Richard

2 April 1745-15 August 1815
BIRTH: "Bohemia Manor," Cecil County, Md.
DEATH: Kent County, Del.

No formal education

Militia, 3 years
Highest rank: Captain

State legislature, 4 years; Governor of Delaware, 2 years; Senate, 4 years

BENSON, Egbert
(New York)

21 June 1746-24 August 1833
BIRTH: New York, N.Y.
DEATH: Jamaica, N.Y.

King's College
(Columbia University)


Colonial legislature, 2 years, Continental Congress, 4 years; state legislature, 6 years; House of Representatives, 5 years

CLARK, Abraham
(New Jersey)

15 February 1726-15 September 1794
BIRTH: Near Elizabethtown, N.J.
DEATH: Rahway, N.J.

No formal education


Colonial legislature, 1 year; Continental Congress, 7 years; Signer of the Declaration of Independence; House of Representatives 4 years; state legislature, 4 years

COXE, Tench

22 May 1755-16 July 1824
BIRTH: Philadelphia, Pa.
DEATH: Philadelphia, Pa.

College of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania) but did not graduate

(Militia officer)

Continental Congress, 1 year, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, 3 years; Commissioner of Revenue, 5 years

*HAMILTON, Alexander
(New York)

11 January 1757-12 July 1804
BIRTH: Nevis, British West Indies
DEATH: New York, N.Y.

King's College but did not graduate

Continental Army, 6 years
Highest rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Continental Congress, 4 years; Secretary of the Treasury, 6 years; Inspector General, United States Army, 2 years

**HOUSTOUN, William Churchill
(New Jersey)

c. 1746-12 August 1788
BIRTH: Cabarrus County (?), N.C.
DEATH: Frankford, Pa.

College of New Jersey
(Princeton University)

Militia, 2 years
Highest rank: Captain


Colonial legislature, 1 year, Continental Congress, 5 years; Receiver of Continental Taxes, 3 years; state legislature, 3 years

*MADISON, James, Jr. (Virginia)

16 March 1751-28 June 1836
BIRTH: Port Conway, King George County, Va.
DEATH: "Montpelier," Orange County, Va.

College of New Jersey

(Militia officer)


Continental Congress, 8 years; state legislature, 4 years; House of Representatives, 8 years; Secretary of State 8 years; President of the United States, 8 years

**RANDOLPH, Edmund Jennings

10 August 1753-12 September 1813
BIRTH: "Tazewell Hall," Williamsburg, Va.
DEATH: Clarke County, Va.

College of William and Mary but did not graduate


Continental Army, 1 year
Highest rank: Lieutenant Colonel


Colonial legislature, 1 year; Continental Congress, 4 years; state legislature, 2 years; Governor of Virginia, 2 years; Attorney General, 4 years; Secretary of State, 2 years

*READ, George

18 September 1733-21 September 1798
BIRTH: North East, Cecil County, Md.
DEATH: Newcastle, Del.

No formal education



Colonial legislature, 10 years, Continental Congress, 4 years; Signer of the Declaration of Independence; state legislature, 9 years; Senate, 5 years

(New Jersey)

12 February 1756-22 January 1824
BIRTH: New Brunswick, N.J.
DEATH: New Brunswick, N.J.

Queen's College
(Rutgers University)

Militia, 1 year
Highest rank: Lieutenant (Prisoner of War)


Continental Congress, 2 years, state legislature, 7 years; House of Representative, 6 years; Senate, 2 years

TUCKER, St. George

10 July 1752-10 November 1827
BIRTH: Port Royal, Bermuda
DEATH: "Edgewood," Nelson County, Va.

College of William and Mary

Militia, 3 years
Highest rank: Lieutenant Colonel

Federal District Judge, 14 years

*Signer of the Constitution
**Member of the Constitutional Convention who did not sign


Dignity, Harmony and Felicity of these confederated Republics; and not only rescue them from their present Difficulties, but from that insolent Hauteur and contemptuous Neglect, which they have experienced as a Nation."

Like the delegates at Annapolis, a majority of the men who would sign the Constitution had seen active military service during the Revolutionary War. Undoubtedly this experience had taught them much about the dangers of a weak central government and had hoped shape their ideas of a national union that would take precedence over the competing demands of states and sections. The foresight of these soldier-statesmen of the Constitution would more than answer the hopes raised for that long-ago Maryland journalist by the Annapolis Convention.


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