On this day in 1785, George Washington receives commissioners from Virginia and Maryland. The gathering came to be known as the Mount Vernon Conference, and it was a precursor for our Constitutional Convention.
It all started with the Potomac River.
Many people then expected the river to be vital to American commerce. Thus, in the months after the Revolution, it became increasingly obvious that the bordering states of Maryland and Virginia would need to work out an agreement for the “jurisdiction & navigation of the River Potowmack.”
In June 1784, Virginia appointed four commissioners to negotiate with Maryland. These men were authorized to “frame such liberal & equitable regulations concerning the said River as may be mutually advantageous to the two States.” Maryland soon agreed to the proposal and appointed its own commissioners. A meeting was set for March 21, in Alexandria.
Or, at least, Maryland thought the meeting was set. There was just one problem. Someone forgot to tell the Virginian commissioners! Even James Madison, who likely helped to draft the Virginian resolution, did not know that a place and time had been set. Thus, on March 21, only the Maryland commissioners showed up.
Fortunately, Washington happened to see one of the Maryland commissioners in the days before the designated meeting. He was able to help salvage the situation with the help of two Virginian commissioners, who happened to live nearby. The commissioners, as George Mason later wrote, “adjourn’d to Mount Vernon, and finished the Business there.” Washington’s hospitality got the meeting going, although it was still a bit of a mess.
The Virginian commissioners, Mason and Alexander Henderson, did not have copies of their commissions, so they didn’t know how far their authority extended. They (erroneously) concluded that their authority extended as far as the Maryland commissioners’ authority. Thus, they thought that they could negotiate with only two men present (they couldn’t), and they thought they could discuss waterways beyond the Potomac (they couldn’t do that, either). Oops! Nevertheless, the negotiations continued. On March 28, a compact was finalized.
Afterwards, Mason wrote that he would need to make amends for breaking the bounds of his commission, even though it had happened purely by accident! Mason told Madison that he would need to head to the state capital “to appologize for, & explain our Conduct.” But he was unhappy because the situation was the “Fault of some of [the Assembly’s] own Officers, not ours.”
Despite the gaffes, both Maryland and Virginia decided to approve the compact and to extend the call for cooperation on issues of interstate commerce. These and other issues soon led to the calling of a new convention at Annapolis. That convention, in turn, would lead to a call for another convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
You guessed it. This latter convention was our Constitutional Convention!
P.S. This incident is relevant to an issue that is brewing today. Some voters want to call an Article V Convention for proposing constitutional amendments. Could it turn into a “runaway convention,” as some fear? Not if we follow the Founders’ example. The founding generation *always* expected that delegates to conventions would be given specific instructions and would stay within the bounds of their commissions. (Why do you think Mason was so embarrassed and had to make amends?) The Article V process can be used safely. But states *must* give their delegates strict parameters.
George Washington, Diary entry (Mar. 22, 1785)
George Washington, Diary entry (Mar. 25, 1785)
John Thomas Scharf, History of Maryland 1765-1812 (1879)
Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln (Feb. 5, 1785)
Letter from George Washington to James Madison (Nov. 5, 1786)
Letter to James Madison from George Mason (Aug. 9, 1785)
Mount Vernon Conference (George Washington's Mount Vernon website)