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Constitutional Convention

The Road to the Convention

The government adopted by the Thirteen Colonies in America (see Confederation, Articles of, and Continental Congress) soon showed serious faults. Congress, powerless to enforce its legislation, was unable to obtain adequate financial support. Although its achievements were not so inconsiderable as has been commonly thought, Congress was, on the whole, impotent, and federal authority was too weak to be of consequence. The central government also was unable to require fulfillment of any obligations it entered into with foreign nations.

Severe economic troubles produced radical economic and political movements, such as Shays's Rebellion. The monetary schemes of the states brought floods of paper money, which some of the states, notably Rhode Island, attempted to force creditors to accept. The threat to economic stability alarmed the wealthy conservative class; the merchants, who found the state tariffs not to their liking, were also harassed by the impossibility of making stable agreements with the English merchants. They were anxious to have a stronger federal government to guarantee order and property rights. The men who had money invested in Western territories also favored a stronger federal government controlling the territories. Therefore, agitation for the adoption of a stronger union grew steadily in force.

Its advocates were zealous. James Madison and George Washington in Virginia, Alexander Hamilton in New York, and James Wilson (1742–98) and Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania all favored some new scheme. The pamphlet of Pelatiah Webster was important, although it has been, perhaps, overemphasized by enthusiasts; feeling for union was general.

It was chiefly through the efforts of Madison that Virginia and Maryland agreed to a conference concerning navigation on the Potomac. The conference met in 1785 at Alexandria and at Mt. Vernon, but it was discovered that no agreements could be reached without the concurrence of Pennsylvania and Delaware. The upshot was the calling of a general convention of the states to discuss commercial problems.

This met at Annapolis in Sept., 1786, but delegates from only five states—Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware—arrived. The delegates therefore announced the calling of a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, to meet at Philadelphia in May, 1787. Notice was sent to Congress, but the new convention was launched as an extralegal body; cautious Congressional endorsement came only after five states had already selected their delegates.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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