At the Convention: What’s this meeting in Philadelphia?

National Constitution Center

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a secret affair, with the press and public closed off from its meetings. But what if someone leaked its happenings to the press?

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Independence Hall 225th anniversary

Independence Hall

In the coming months, Constitution Daily’s Don Applestein will play the role of a confidential reporter who had a source in the room—or maybe at a local boarding house.

Between now and mid-September, “At the Convention” will summarize the dramatic debates and issues that led to our Constitution, as if you were there.

AT THE CONVENTION: PROLOGUE

Philadelphia, May 13, 1787. The entire city is buzzing about the upcoming convention to be held later this month. It is said the delegates will devise an improved structure for our nation’s government. This all began at George Washington’s Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. In March 1785, Virginia and Maryland sent delegates to Mount Vernon to discuss and resolve commercial issues between the states. Each wanted to expand westward and felt the best way to do this was to use the rivers within their borders and the construction of a system of canals.

The delegates were unable to resolve the issues. There were two problems: First, under the Articles of Confederation, no state could enter into a treaty with another without the approval of all the states. Second, there is a series of falls in the Potomac River that would have to be deal with.

These issues would involve the other states, so Virginia and Maryland put out a call for a meeting in Annapolis in 1786 “to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interest.”

From September 11, 1786, to September 14, 1786, 12 delegates from five states (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia) met in Annapolis.

North Carolina, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire had appointed delegates, but they did not arrive in time for the conference. Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia never took any action.

The delegates concluded that there were not enough states present to reach a substantive, binding agreement. Nevertheless, they prepared a report for the Confederation Congress and the states, which called for a broader meeting the following May in Philadelphia “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Foederal [sic] Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

The official name of the May 17878 convention was to be a “Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government.”

Notices of the upcoming convention were sent to the states and each began selection of its delegates.

One of the important issues was whether George Washington would attend. Following the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington had resigned his commission, retired from public life, and returned to Mount Vernon. James Madison and others urged him to attend the upcoming convention, but Washington hesitated, fearing that the public would think he was trying to grab power again.

However, after Shays’ Rebellion in January 1787, as well as other uprisings, he realized that the Articles of Confederation were inadequate and could not provide for “domestic tranquility.”

On March 28 he wrote to Governor Edmund Randolph informing him that he would attend the convention as a Virginia delegate.  With Washington’s attendance, the states now knew the convention was a serious event, potentially changing the fundamental structure of the nation.

Delegates are scheduled to be here by May 14.

Next installment (May 24): Will this convention ever get started, and other gossip from Philly

Donald Applestein is a retired attorney and an experience guide in the National Constitution Center’s Public Programs Department.

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