The Annapolis Convention of 1786

Delegates Concerned Over 'Important Defects' In New Federal Government

Photo of George Washington’s signed copy of the US Constitution
George Washington’s Personal Copy of the Constitution. Win McNamee / Getty Images

In 1786, the new United States was really not running very smoothly under the Articles of Confederation and the delegates attending the Annapolis Convention were eager to point out the problems.

While it was comparatively small and failed to accomplish its intended purpose, the Annapolis Convention was a major step leading to the creation of the U.S. Constitution and the current federal government system.

The Reason for the Annapolis Convention

After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the leaders of the new American nation took on the daunting job of creating a government capable of fairly and efficiently meeting what they knew would be an ever- growing list of public needs and demands.

America’s first attempt at a constitution, the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781, created a rather weak central government, leaving most powers to the states. This resulted in a series of localized tax rebellions, economic depressions, and problems with trade and commerce that the central government was unable to resolve, such as:

  • In 1786, a dispute over alleged economic injustices and suspension of civil rights by the state of Massachusetts resulted in Shays' Rebellion, an often violent dispute in which protestors were eventually subdued by a privately raised and funded militia. 
  • In 1785, Maryland and Virginia engaged in a particularly nasty dispute over which state should be allowed to profit from the commercial use of the rivers that crossed both states.

    Under the Articles of Confederation, each state was free to enact and enforce its own laws regarding trade, leaving the federal government powerless to deal with trade disputes between different states or to regulate inter-state commerce.

    Realizing that a more comprehensive approach to the powers of the central government was needed, the Virginia legislature, at the suggestion of future fourth President of the United States James Madison, called for a meeting of delegates from all of the existing thirteen states in September, 1786, in Annapolis, Maryland.

    The Annapolis Convention Setting

    Officially called as a Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government, the Annapolis Convention was held September 11--14, 1786 at Mann's Tavern in Annapolis, Maryland.

    A total of only 12 delegates from just five states—New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia – actually attended the convention. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and North Carolina had appointed commissioners who failed to arrive in Annapolis in time to attend, while Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia chose not to participate at all.

    Delegates who attended the Annapolis Convention included:

    • From New York: Egbert Benson and Alexander Hamilton
    • From New Jersey: Abraham Clark, William Houston, and James Schureman
    • From Pennsylvania: Tench Coxe
    • From Delaware: George Read, John Dickinson, and Richard Bassett
    • From Virginia: Edmund Randolph, James Madison, and St. George Tucker

    The Results of the Annapolis Convention

    On September 14, 1786, the 12 delegates attending the Annapolis Convention unanimously approved a resolution recommending that Congress convene a broader constitutional convention to be held the following May in Philadelphia for the purpose of amending the weak Articles of Confederation to rectify a number of serious defects.

    The resolution expressed the delegates’ hope that the constitutional convention would be attended by representatives of more states and that the delegates would be authorized to examine areas of concern broader than simply laws regulating of commercial trade between the states.

    The resolution, which was submitted to Congress and the state legislatures, expressed the delegates’ deep concern regarding “important defects in the system of the Federal Government,” which they warned “may be found greater and more numerous, than even these acts imply.”

    With only five of the thirteen states represented, the authority of the Annapolis Convention was limited. As a result, other than recommending the calling of a full constitutional convention, the delegates attending the delegates took no action on the issues that had brought them together.

    “That the express terms of the powers of your Commissioners supposing a deputation from all the States, and having for object the Trade and Commerce of the United States, Your Commissioners did not conceive it advisable to proceed on the business of their mission, under the Circumstances of so partial and defective a representation,” stated the convention’s resolution.

    The events of the Annapolis Convention also prompted eventual first President of the United States George Washington to add his plea for a stronger federal government. In a letter to fellow Founding Father James Madison dated November 5, 1786, Washington memorably wrote, “The consequences of a lax, or inefficient government, are too obvious to be dwelt on. Thirteen Sovereignties pulling against each other and all tugging the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole.”

    While the Annapolis Convention failed to accomplish its purpose, the delegates’ recommendations were adopted by the U.S. Congress. Eight months later, on May 25, 1787, the Philadelphia Convention convened and succeeded in creating the present U.S. Constitution.