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This Day in History: The Annapolis Convention, a predecessor to the Constitutional Convention

On this day in 1786, James Madison writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Madison is preparing to attend the Annapolis Convention, a predecessor to our Constitutional Convention.


Remember, America was then operating under a document called the Articles of Confederation. The national government created by the Articles was not very strong, and the states were having trouble working together on matters of commerce and foreign affairs.

Madison was discouraged! He strongly felt that a new form of government needed to be devised, but he worried that it would not happen. The Annapolis Convention was intended to tackle only one of the two problematic areas—“the trade of the United States”—and he didn’t know if even THAT would happen!


“Many Gentlemen both within & without Congs.,” Madison wrote Jefferson, “wish to make this Meeting subservient to a Plenipotentiary Convention for amending the Confederation. Tho’ my wishes are in favor of such an event, yet I despair so much of its accomplishment at the present crisis that I do not extend my views beyond a Commercial Reform. To speak the truth I almost despair even of this.”


My, how things changed in one short year!


Soon after Madison’s gloomy letter to Jefferson, the Annapolis Convention would meet and issue a call for a new meeting “at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, [and] 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 . . . .”


That Philadelphia meeting, of course, became our Constitutional Convention. As we now know, it would prove to be wildly successful! Delegates signed the proposed Constitution only 1 year, 1 month and 5 days after Madison’s worry that *even simple matters of trade* could not be resolved because the states were so disunited.


George Washington would later credit Providence for this calm and peaceful transition. He said:

“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their United Government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude . . . .”


Okay, a bit of a tangent, but one last important note:


You’ll note that Madison mentions a “plenipotentiary convention” in his letter to Jefferson. A “plenipotentiary convention” is a convention at which any subject or any amendment may be proposed. This is important to today’s discussions regarding whether the states should call a convention for proposing amendments. Some worry that such a convention could degenerate into a “runaway convention,” allegedly like the Constitutional Convention did. But the 1787 Convention was not a runaway convention! Most states, at the time, gave their delegates much more sweeping authority than is generally realized today. By contrast, the convention contemplated by Article V of our Constitution is more limited. States could limit the topics/amendments that their delegates are authorized to discuss.


More information on the Article V amendment process is HERE.


Primary Sources

  • George Washington, First Inaugural Address (April 30, 1789)

  • Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson (August 12, 1786)

  • Proceedings of Commissioners to remedy defects of the Federal Government (Annapolis, Maryland) (Sept. 11, 1786)

  • Virginia General Assembly Commission for Delegates to Annapolis Convention (January 21, 1786)

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