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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Thursday, May 3, 1787

May 03, 2020 - 4 minute read

James Madison

This afternoon, James Madison arrived in Philadelphia, eleven days before the convention is scheduled to begin.  It is his custom to arrive at such events early; he checked in at Mann’s Tavern a week before the Annapolis Convention which had convened to address disputes over various protectionist trade barriers impeding commerce among the states. At the age of thirty-six, he has not yet married and is unencumbered by having to make a living and support a family, permitting him to devote his time, energy and considerable intellect to studying and working for a more effective government for our newly independent nation.

The Annapolis Convention had been a failure.  Slated to begin on September 11, 1786, only twelve delegates, representing five States had bothered to show up on time. Four States sent no delegates at all. Lacking a quorum, the delegates had no authority to act.  Nevertheless, before leaving town they unanimously approved a resolution recommending that the Confederacy Congress (the body operating under the Articles of Confederation) convene another conference the following May in Philadelphia. The purpose of the convention would be to consider the defects of the Articles of Confederation and recommend alterations “adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”

The report of the Annapolis Convention was drafted by Alexander Hamilton, one of two delegates from New York. The report referred to “defects” in the system of government which he specifically declined to enumerate, but did not refrain from saying they were “embarrassments which characterize the present state of our national affairs, foreign and domestic,” which “merit a deliberate and candid discussion.”  

As soon as the Annapolis meeting adjourned, Madison hurriedly returned to Virginia to lobby for its support of the proposed convention, including drafting the bill for Virginia’s approval and commencing his personal effort to recruit George Washington as a delegate. 

Having agreed to serve another term representing Virginia in Congress, Madison soon was back in New York City, one of several cities having served as the nation’s capital since the War for Independence had been won.  Madison found Congress as divided as ever, including serious disagreement about the gathering proposed to take place here in Philadelphia.  But Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts, a debtor revolt in New Hampshire and continued economic woes facing the country have finally prompted Congress to act.  By the time Congress voted on February 21, 1787 to call for a convention “for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation,” seven States had already authorized their attendance.  Most had even named their delegates.  

 Madison is wasting no time.  In fact, he has been had preparing for months.  His close friend and political confidante, Thomas Jefferson, is serving as minister to France and has sent Madison hundreds of books on political philosophy and government.  Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies” and “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” are already well known and acknowledged evidence of his mental acumen and intellectual prowess.  

When not attending to his duties in Congress, Madison is not socializing or seeing the sights of New York.  He has been hunkered down in his room at Vandin Elsworth’s boarding house on Maiden Lane, just a few short blocks from City Hall, immersing himself in making a comprehensive list of the defects in the Articles Hamilton had deliberately omitted in the Annapolis recommendation.  His “Vices of the Political System of the United States” lays out the case for a vigorous national government and protection of liberty for our people.  Among these are encroachment by the States on federal authority – and he names specific States; wars and treaties of Georgia with the Indians; unlicensed compacts between Maryland and Virginia and between Pennsylvania and New Jersey; and troops raised and kept by Massachusetts.  Moreover, he wrote, “not a year has passed” without at least one State violating treaties, including the treaty with Britain ending the War for Independence. 

States are even trespassing on the rights of other States – restricting access to ports to ships from other States; issuing paper money; making property legal tender; defrauding citizens of other States; and refusing cooperation where common interests require it.  States themselves have violated the rights and interests of minorities by persecuting religious minorities and unfairly relieving debtors at the expense of those holding debts

Even the legal status of the Articles of Confederation itself varies from State to State, further weakening its enforceability. To make matters worse, there is no strong national government with authority to ameliorate the mounting disunity we are all beginning to feel.

We have heard Madison has sent copies of his “Vices” to friends sympathetic to his views, asking for their comments and soliciting their support.  On March 31, General Washington added examples of his own to Madison’s vices, pointing out discretions in New York, Massachusetts, and his own Virginia.  Endorsing the proposed convention, he expressed his “wish that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedient but probe the defects of the Constitution [Articles of Confederation] to the bottom, and provide radical cures, whether they are agreed to or not.”

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