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Constitutional Arcana: The Forgotten Navigation Convention of 1786

062012 RGN BlackSpoutWood Pitlochry In an earlier post, I reported that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was far from unique: that during the lifetime of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) nearly 20 inter-colonial and interstate conventions met. Some were attended by as few as three colonies or states; others by as many as 12.

These multi-governmental conventions were held in Philadelphia (three); Annapolis (one);York Town, Pennsylvania (one); Providence, Rhode Island (two); Boston (one); Hartford (two); Albany, New York (at least four); Rome, New York (one); New Haven (one); Lancaster, Pennsylvania (one); and Springfield, Massachusetts (one). All were diplomatic meetings consisting of “committees” (delegations) of “commissioners” (delegates), with each colony or state having one vote. All were called to focus on designated problems, such as Indian relations, relations with the British, wartime supply, trade, or the currency.

In addition to the gatherings that occurred, there were others that were called but never met. For example, in 1777 the Continental Congress asked Georgia and the Carolinas to meet at Charleston to discuss wartime inflation, but those states never did so. In 1783, Massachusetts called for a meeting with Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York to discuss tax issues, but it never was held. There are other examples.

I recently added to my list the abortive “Navigation Convention.” In 1785, Virginia and Maryland concluded successful negotiations over rights to the Potomac River. Perhaps inspired by the result, late the same year Pennsylvania proposed that Maryland and Delaware join with it in a convention to discuss (1) improvements in the Susquehanna River (there was talk of a permanent national capital on the Susquehanna) and (2) a canal linking the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays.

During the first half of 1786, all three states selected delegates and, apparently, carried out some informal negotiations. But the idea of a formal meeting was outrun by events, as first the Annapolis Convention and then the Constitutional Convention were called to address much wider ranges of issues.

Like most of the other 18th century multi-governmental meetings, the Navigation Convention is little known among constitutional writers today. In fact, the Navigation Convention may be the least known of the lot, for it was overshadowed by the nearly-contemporaneous call of the Annapolis Convention.

The confusion extends even to true professionals (which most constitutional writers really are not). A Delaware archivist has informed me that his state’s records on the subject had been misfiled with those pertaining to the gathering at Annapolis. Apparently, whoever filed the documents had been unaware that the Navigation Convention was not the same meeting as the much more famous Annapolis Convention.

Rob Natelson