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Historical Background

AGAINST this background, was it any wonder that a movement originated to revise the Articles of Confederation? Many leaders believed that the country required a more truly national Government to replace the existing loose compact of States. Although many of the prevalent difficulties would probably be encountered by any new nation while establishing its sovereignty and authority over its people, most of them were attributed to weaknesses in the Confederation.

Maryland State House
Maryland State House, where the Annapolis Convention met in September 1786. (Engraving (undated) by an unknown artist, in Columbian Magazine (1789). Library of Congress.)

DESPITE all the weaknesses of the Confederation that might have sparked reform, it was the congressional lack of power to regulate commerce that brought about the Mount Vernon Conference and the Annapolis Convention, two interstate meetings of limited scope. These led to the Constitutional Convention.

The Mount Vernon Conference, held in March 1785, began at Alexandria, Va., and concluded at George Washington's nearby estate. Representatives of the legislatures of Maryland and Virginia, who convened basically for the purpose of discussing mutual navigation problems along the lower Potomac, also achieved agreement on maritime use of the Chesapeake Bay, fishing and harbor rights, criminal jurisdiction, import duties, currency control, and other matters. Although James Madison did not attend, he had been the prime mover behind the conference. Washington, whose canal-oriented Patowmack Company sought to develop east-west trade and who was concerned about foreign intrigue among western settlers, sympathized with the goals of the meeting even if he was not instrumental in convening it.

Spurred by the success of this interstate diplomacy, in January 1786 the Virginia legislature, acting on a resolution possibly drafted by Madison, invited all the States to another conference. This one was to deal with domestic and foreign trade and make recommendations for their improvement to the States and the Continental Congress.

The Annapolis Convention met in September 1786 at the Maryland State House. In attendance were 12 representatives of 5 States (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia), including Chairman John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Clark, William C. Houston, George Read, Richard Bassett, Edmund J. Randolph, and James Madison. Delegates from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina either did not participate or arrived too late to take part; Maryland, Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia did not make any appointments.

Because of the sparse representation, the commissioners took no action on the announced topic. Hamilton and Madison, however, convinced them that they should exceed their limited mandate and recommend a national meeting to consider the adequacy of the Articles of Confederation. The carefully couched report, drafted by Hamilton, proposed that all the States and the Continental Congress endorse another conference to be convened at Philadelphia on the second Monday of May in 1787. Its purpose, in essence, would be the framing of measures to strengthen the Articles.

Annapolis Convention report
First page of the report of the Annapolis Convention, forerunner of the Constutional Convention. (National Archives)

When the delegates rode away from Annapolis, they could not be sure that the proposed meeting would even take place. But the unfavorable national economic situation among other factors, and possibly the outbreak of debtor disturbances in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, prompted the Continental Congress to act after seven States (Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Georgia) had already authorized delegations and named most of their representatives. On February 21, 1787, that body passed a resolution calling for the new convention:

Whereas there is provision in the Articles of Confederation & perpetual Union for making alterations therein by the Assent of a Congress of the United States and of the legislatures of the several States; And whereas experience hath evinced that there are defects in the present Confederation, as a mean to remedy which several of the States and particularly the State of New York by express instructions to their delegates in Congress have suggested a convention for the purposes expressed in the following resolution and such Convention appearing to be the most probable mean of establishing in these states a firm national government

Resolved that in the Opinion of Congress it is expedient that on the second Monday in May next a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several States be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union

Jefferson, Adams
Among the prominent men who were not elected as delegates to the Constitutional Convention were Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams (right), who were on diplomatic service in Europe. (Jefferson, detail from oil (1786) by Mather Brown, Charles Francis Adams, Lexington, Mass.; Adams, detail from oil (1788) by Mather Brown, Library of the Boston Athenaeum.)

ALL 13 States appointed delegates except Rhode Island, an insufficient number of whose leaders sympathized with the nationalistic goals of the Convention. A total of more than 70 individuals were originally nominated, but a substantial number of them did not accept the assignment or did not attend. Their reasons included opposition to constitutional, revision, poor health, family illness, and the press of personal or professional business.

Some of the men in this category were prominent, including Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and Patrick Henry of Virginia; Abraham Clark of New Jersey; George Walton of Georgia; Henry Laurens of South Carolina; and Maryland's Thomas Stone and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. All these individuals except Henry and Laurens had signed the Declaration of Independence. Part of the group who rejected nomination or did not take part in the Convention later favored the new frame of Government and supported ratification of the Constitution; others opposed it.

Various national leaders and eminently qualified people were not even elected. Among these were such men as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were on diplomatic duty in Europe; Samuel Adams, whose political fortunes were temporarily on the decline; and John Hancock, who was busy as Governor of Massachusetts.

New York named the smallest delegation, three; Pennsylvania the largest, eight. Attendance ranged from New York, which for much of the time had only one unofficial representative (Hamilton) on hand, and New Hampshire, with two late arrivals, to Pennsylvania, whose eight delegates all participated throughout most of the Convention. The States usually paid all or part of their representatives' expenses, and apparently in some instances compensated them.

Each State specified what portion of its delegation needed to be present to act for it and cast its vote. The credentials of all the delegates except those from thinly populated Delaware authorized them to approve such changes in the Articles of Confederation as they deemed desirable. Delaware directed its emissaries not to agree to any changes in the basis of congressional representation from the one State-one vote system in the Continental Congress, though during the Convention the Delawareans disregarded these instructions when the large and small States reached a compromise on this matter.

Lee, Henry, Jay, Chase
Four national leaders who did not attend the Constitutional Convention, Upper left, Richard Henry Lee; upper right, Patrick Henry; lower left, John Jay; lower right, Samuel Chase. The latter two were not elected, and the first two declined to serve. (Lee, detail from oil (1784) by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park, Pa.; Henry, detail from miniature, watercolor on ivory (undated), by Lawrence Sully, Herbert DuPuy Collection, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Jay, detail from oil (1795-96) by Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale, after Charles Willson Peale, Maryland Historical Society; Chase, detail from oil (ca. 1773) by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park.)

MANY of the delegates arrived at Philadelphia bone-weary and dusty or mud-splattered from their tedious journeys. The unpaved and rutted roads, dangerous bridges, treacherous fords, and unreliable ferries made cross-country travel hazardous, undependable, and unpleasant even in the best of weather. Stagelines which frequently involved partial boat travel, were the usual mode of transportation. Three lines connected Philadelphia with New York City; three with Baltimore; and one with Annapolis. Some of the framers, however, made the trip mainly by ship, and Washington drove up from Mount Vernon in his carriage. Personnel coming from New York City, including the sizable contingent from the Continental Congress, were among the most fortunate. That city, under favorable circumstances, was less than a day's journey away by stage or stage-boat combination. But Virginia and the southern part of New England required 4 days on the road; and, more distant points, even longer.

Philadelphia, founded in 1682 by William Penn and the metropolis of the Nation, had a population of more than 40,000. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated, it was a center of commerce, science, medicine, and culture. Fashionable gentlemen in powdered wigs and velvet and satin clothes and their elegant ladies ambled along the brick sidewalks in the prosperous and booming downtown area among mechanics in felt hats, leather aprons, and buckskin breeches; visiting farmers in homespun and moccasins; black slaves and freedmen; foreign and domestic sailors; and an occasional Indian. The principal thoroughfares, often cleaned by prisoners from the city jail, were paved and lighted at night. More than 500 iron-handled pumps throughout the area provided the citizens with water.

By 1787 expansion had resulted in urban sprawl, and the initial grid pattern of broad streets and spacious lots had in some sections given way to narrow alleys and crowded houses. Sanitation problems plagued poor residents. Insects bred in the piles of trash, livery stables, and backyard privies. The din was distracting. The air reverberated with the sounds of construction, calls from street hawkers, church bells, and the "thundering of Coaches, Chariots, Chaises, Waggons, Drays, and the whole Fraternity of Noise."

written credentials of William Houstoun
Credentials of delegates varied widely in format and content. Here are those of William Houstoun of Georgia. (National Archives)

Many Philadelphians sought refuge from the summer heat on their balconies and piazzas under awnings or in their shaded gardens. In the evenings, some people braved the mosquitoes to cool off on benches flanking the front doors. But by 11 o'clock most of them had retired, leaving the streets to members of the watch, who hourly until dawn called out the time and weather.

Blinds protected the Convention members, sitting in the Pennsylvania State House (present Independence Hall), from the worst of the afternoon sun, but they were frequently uncomfortable in their close-fitting clothes and wigs, especially the New Englanders in their heavy woolen suits. When the windows were shut to reduce the noise, the air became oppressive; when they were opened, flies buzzed in.

Most of the delegates took accommodations near the State House. The majority lodged and boarded in hostelries or roominghouses, but Washington stayed at Robert Morris' elegant townhouse and Elbridge Gerry rented a house for himself and his family. Most of the framers, however, were separated from their loved ones. To reduce living costs and perhaps to quell any loneliness, some of them stayed two to a room. The Indian Queen Tavern, the city's most comfortable inn where many stayed, became an informal Convention center and the management even provided them with a private common hall. Another popular spot was the City Tavern, furnished in the London mode. In addition to these inns, well-patronized dining and drinking spots were the George and the Black Horse.

During their free time, when they were not discussing Convention proceedings, visiting with one another, or writing letters home, the delegates found many diversions, particularly during the two adjournments. Social affairs were numerous, though some of the less sophisticated individuals disliked the excess of "etiquette and nonsense so fashionable." Some men were invited to dinner by Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, and other members of the Pennsylvania delegation, who all resided in the city or its environs.

Philadelphia about 1750, as viewed from the New Jersey shore. (Drawing (ca. 1750) by George Heap, which was engraved and published in London, 1754. Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Various framers visited John Bartram's botanical gardens across the Schuylkill River; heard a July 4 oration at a Lutheran Church; dined at the splendid fish-eating clubs; and probably patronized Peale's Museum. A common pastime was likely reading, for which the Library Company collection in Carpenters' Hall, only a block from the State House, was conveniently located. The shops and twice-weekly farm markets offered an enticing assortment of food and imported goods. Some delegates went fishing. From time to time, others, particularly those from nearby States, took trips home to see their loved ones or conduct personal and professional business. And, especially on weekends or during adjournments, a few went sightseeing to nearby areas.

Washington, the supreme national hero, was welcomed to town on May 13 by pealing bells, an artillery salute, and an escort of the City Light Horse Troop. Quickly swept up in a whirl of social affairs and ceremonies, he received the City Light Horse and infantry militiamen; attended a Roman Catholic Mass; dined with the Society of the Cincinnati, the Sons of St. Patrick, and at the homes of various prominent people; visited several country estates, including those of Robert Morris and Thomas Mifflin; drank tea at different houses most every day; rode horses for exercise; sat for a portrait by Charles Willson Peale; and attended plays, concerts, and poetry readings. He also paid a nostalgic visit to Valley Forge and made an excursion to the Trenton Iron Works. But, despite all the social hubbub, for most of the delegates it was a busy, lonely summer taken up with work, working dinners, and not much real leisure.

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Last Updated: 29-Jul-2004