This entry, first published on Oct. 7, 2016, was updated on April 14, 2023.
A “call” to an interstate convention is an invitation for state representatives to meet at a particular time and place to discuss prescribed issues. During the Founding Era, convention calls were issued by the Continental and Confederation Congresses, by prior conventions and—most frequently—by individual states.
Who gets the credit for calling the most important convention of all—the gathering that drafted our U.S. Constitution? Writers most often claim the Confederation Congress did, citing its resolution of February 21, 1787. However, the honor also has been claimed for the New Jersey legislature, the Virginia legislature, and the 1786 Annapolis Convention.
Ironically, the most common assertion—that Congress called the convention—is the most obviously wrong.
Let’s examine the sequence of events:
The first entity to act was the Annapolis Convention, which was convened to discuss issues of trade. Commissioners (delegates) from only five states showed up on time: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia. Professing themselves unable to fulfill their mission, on September 14, 1786, the commissioners issued a statement. The entire text is reproduced at the end of this post.* Stripping out the unessential wording, it is as follows:
“Your Commissioners. . . suggest . . . that . . . the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavours to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, to meet at Philadelphia . . . to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions . . . 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 . . . Congress . . . as when agreed to, by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State, will effectually provide for the same.”
(In Founding era political usage, the word constitution usually referred to the general political system rather than a particular document. Thus, the Declaration of Independence decried British actions “foreign to our Constitution.” Even today we refer to the British political system as the “British constitution.”)
In a nutshell, the Annapolis commissioners “suggested” to the five states that sent them that those states agree with and promote the idea of a gathering in Philadelphia that would
- consider the situation of the United States,
- “devise . . . provisions” to
- change the political system so as to
- render it adequate, and
- obtain the agreement of Congress and of every state legislature.
This clearly was not a call: The commissioners, having no power to call a convention, merely “suggested” that their own states take action. Their resolution was not directed at other states. Moreover, none of the subsequent state resolutions adopted the Annapolis formula in its entirety.
New Jersey was represented in Annapolis. On November 24, 1786, her state legislature passed a resolution. It said that four named commissioners were
“appointed on the Part of this State. . .and they hereby are authorized and empowered to meet such Commissioners as have been or may be appointed by the other States in the Union at the City of Philadelphia, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania . . . for the Purpose of taking into Consideration the State of the Union as to Trade and other important Objects, and of devising such further Provisions as shall appear necessary to render the Constitution of the federal Government adequate to the Exigencies thereof.”
Interestingly, the actual credentials delivered to the commissioners bore the date of November 23, the day before the legislative resolution passed.
This resolution was an important step, but if you read it you can see it was not the call either. It was not an invitation, and it was not addressed to any other state.
Next: On December 1, 1786 (not on October 16 as some sources indicate) Virginia’s general assembly passed a law entitled “AN ACT for appointing Deputies from this Commonwealth to a Convention proposed to be held in the City of Philadelphia in May next for the purpose of revising the federal Constitution.” You can read the entire act here. These are the highlights:
- A preamble consisted of three “whereas clauses.” The first recited the suggestion of the Annapolis convention without mentioning the need for approval by Congress or by all states. The second recited that a political “Crisis” had arrived. The third implicitly urged all states to act, citing the need for citizens to unite in the same spirit in which they had joined together under the Articles of Confederation.
- The operative part of the Virginia statute authorized appointment of seven commissioners to join with those from other states “in devising and discussing all such Alterations and farther Provisions as may be necessary to render the Foederal Constitution adequate to the Exigencies of the Union and in reporting such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress as when agreed to by them and duly confirmed by the several States will effectually provide for the same.”
- At the end was this wording: “And the Governor is requested to transmit forthwith a Copy of this Act to the United States in Congress and to the Executives of each of the States in the Union.”
Next, on December 12, Virginia appointed her commissioners by legislative resolution.
After that, events unfolded quickly. Pennsylvania announced participation on December 30, North Carolina and New Hampshire in January, Delaware on February 3, and Georgia on February 10. Thus, by the time Congress acted on February, 21, 1787, seven states already had agreed to participate under terms granting the convention wide powers.
Thus, Virginia’s measure served as the call. It urged all states to act. It was sent to the other states. And other states quickly responded.
What of the later congressional resolution? It provided:
“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 3 and the preservation of the Union.”
This was a compromise between a committee proposal that Congress “strongly recommend” a convention with broad powers and a New York proposal that Congress “recommend” a convention limited to proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation.
Note that the congressional resolution was not a summons nor even a recommendation. It expressed only “the opinion of Congress”—language without any legal force.
Virginia, therefore, called the Constitutional Convention. The Commonwealth’s governor, Edmund Randolph, underscored this at the Constitutional Convention when he said, “the convention had originated from Virginia.” So also did Hugh Brackenridge, a distinguished Pennsylvania lawyer who later served on his state’s supreme court. In an October 27, 1787 article in the Pittsburgh Gazette, he wrote: “[T]he calling the late convention did not originate with Congress; it began with the state of Virginia which was followed by this state, without any hint of the necessity of this measure from Congress whatever; it was a proceeding altogether out of the confederation, and with which Congress had nothing to do.”
* The full statement by the Annapolis Convention was as follows: “Your Commissioners, with the most respectful deference, beg leave to suggest their unanimous conviction, that it may essentially tend to advance the interests of the union, if the States, by whom they have been respectively delegated, would themselves concur, and use their endeavours to procure the concurrence of the other States, in the appointment of Commissioners, 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, will effectually provide for the same.”