James Madison arranged the Annapolis Convention and hoped that it would pave the way to a plenipotentiary convention for amending the Confederation as a whole. Read to know who participated in this convention, and what the outcome was.
Beginning of Madison’s Public Career
In 1776, Madison was initiated into his public career by a county election to the Convention of Virginia. His experience in the Virginia legislature and on the governor’s Council of State in Williamsburg introduced him to Thomas Jefferson, and in December 1779, just after Jefferson’s election as governor of Virginia, Madison was appointed a member of Virginia’s delegation to the Continental Congress.
Madison did not land in Congress as a full-throated exponent of national authority. He was there to defend Virginia’s interests, and he did this on three vital points.
Learn more about the provincial nature of state legislatures.
The Three Issues Madison Handled
The first issue concerned the Mississippi river. Assuming, as one had to in 1780, that the United States would prevail in its revolution, Congress wanted it clearly understood that the United States’ western boundary would inevitably have to be fixed at the Mississippi river.
It was another question, however, whether Spain, which still ruled the Louisiana territory and most of the western banks of the Mississippi, would open the river to American trade. Congress hesitated. The Revolutionaries needed Spain as an ally, and some of the delegates were willing to trade navigation rights on the river for Spanish assistance against the British.
Not Madison, though. If the American boundaries reached the Mississippi, so would Virginia’s, and Madison stubbornly insisted that Congress had no business giving away Virginia’s claims on the river’s commerce.
Madison was just as stubborn on a second issue, the call by Congress for Virginia to cede all its claims to western territory in order to induce small states like Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation. He could not reconcile with the respect due from every state to its own sovereignty and honor, an appeal, from its decisions, to a foreign tribunal, as though the Confederation Congress was as alien to Virginia as Parliament.
Third, Madison resisted Congress’s decision to recognize Vermont as an independent and 14th state, because Vermont had been carved out from lands originally claimed by New York. If the district in question was comprehended within the jurisdiction of one or more of the United States—Madison insisted—it must necessarily follow that the inhabitants could have no right to set up an independent state.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Impact of Powerless Congress on Investments
Madison soon enough learned that a Congress powerless to control the states made for a nation that no one abroad had confidence in.
He learned this to his sorrow when he made his first big investment in land with a purchase of 900 acres in upstate New York. He would have gone for more, but he had not been able to find lenders willing to finance his investment, and so he turned to Jefferson, who by then was serving as American representative in Paris, to see if French financiers could help.
However, Jefferson told him that not even George Washington had been able to find lenders for the Potowmack Company in Paris due to the habitual protection of the debtor by state legislatures like Rhode Island’s.
Congress would have to take the lead, first by demonstrating that it had the power to pay off its own existing wartime loans, and the second, by showing that it could control the waywardness of the state legislatures in tax and money matters.
Madison’s solution, like others in Congress, was to support the granting to Congress of the power to levy tariffs—that five percent impost proposed in 1781 for starters.
Learn more about Madison’s suggestions for a new frame of government.
Meeting of the Commissioners at Annapolis
However, Madison gave up the struggle in December 1783, and took up a seat in the Virginia legislature, fighting off proposals to pay state debts in paper money. He missed the Mount Vernon Conference, but he persuaded the Virginia Assembly to endorse George Mason’s call for a larger conference, and got himself appointed as one of the commissioners to the upcoming meeting.
A circular letter was sent to the other states, inviting them to appoint their own commissioners, and to meet at Annapolis, Maryland, on the first Monday in September 1786.
Madison’s real hope, as he told Thomas Jefferson a month before the meeting, was that the Annapolis Convention would pave the way to a plenipotentiary convention for amending the Confederation as a whole.
The Annapolis Convention
Although Madison understood that eight states had pledged to send delegates, only five delegations actually showed up—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia, comprising only 12 commissioners—and Madison was almost minded to “break up the meeting, with a recommendation of another time and place, and an intimation of the expediency of extending the plan to other defects of the Confederation.”
However, among those 12 commissioners were precisely the individuals most capable of carrying the convention forward—Madison, to begin with, but also Alexander Hamilton from New York, and John Dickinson of Delaware, the architect of the original Articles of Confederation. And once they began deliberating, matters moved ahead handsomely, shifting swiftly from problems in regulating interstate commerce to the fundamental and essential principles of the Union.
Learn more about the Articles of Confederation.
The Address by the Delegates to State Legislatures
On the fourth day of the convention, the delegates adopted an address to their respective state legislatures, written largely by Hamilton.
The address boldly announced that since the New Jersey delegates had been authorized by their state to do more than just talk trade and commerce, but to expand their purview to include any measures which would enable the United States effectually to provide for the exigencies of the Union, the delegates:
Have been induced to think, that the power of regulating trade is of such comprehensive extent, and will enter so far into the general System of the federal government, that to give it efficacy, and to obviate questions and doubts concerning its precise nature and limits, may require a correspondent adjustment of other parts of the Federal System.
And, without pausing, the address went on to specify just what mechanism the Confederation should adopt for putting itself out of business as a Confederation:
A Convention of Deputies from the different States to meet at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May next, to take into consideration the situation of the United States, 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; and to report such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to, by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, this—they proposed—will effectually provide for the same.
There had been motions in the Confederation Congress before of convening a national assembly to reconstruct the Articles, some of them as early as 1784. However, amendments to the Articles of Confederation were considered, and then dropped.
But in these circumstances, the pressure happened, and things moved rapidly.
Common Questions about James Madison and the Annapolis Convention
In December 1779, just after Jefferson’s election as governor of Virginia, Madison was appointed a member of Virginia’s delegation to the Continental Congress.
Madison’s hope was that the Annapolis Convention would pave the way to a plenipotentiary convention for amending the Confederation as a whole.
Although eight states had pledged to send delegates to the Annapolis Convention, only five delegations actually showed up—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia.