Even before the Articles of Confederation were officially adopted on 1 March 1781, voices were raised to amend them. Article XIII provided that amendments should be proposed by Congress and had to be ratified by all of the state legislatures. Repeated attempts to amend the Articles failed. Some proposals debated in Congress were never sent to the states. Of the half dozen proposals sent to the states for their consideration, none received the approval of all of the states.
After a brief period of prosperity at the end of the Revolutionary war, the country fell into the throes of a severe economic depression that created widespread political turmoil. Debtors demanded relief from their state legislatures. When relief was not offered, armed domestic insurrections occurred. Separatist movements also surfaced in half a dozen states, proposals to divide the Union into separate confederations aired, and hints of a military coup, foreign invasion, and a reversion to monarchy spread throughout the country. Foreign intrigue with the British in the north and the Spanish in the west endangered the Union and provoked conflict with Indians.
In January 1786, the Virginia legislature called for a convention of the states to address the country’s commercial problems. Nine states appointed commissioners to meet in Annapolis, Maryland in September 1786. Instead of waiting for the customary tardy arrivals, twelve commissioners from only five states drafted a report and adjourned. The report, sent to Congress and all of the states, called for a convention of the states to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 that would consider whatever amendments were needed to correct the defects in the Articles of Confederation.
All of the states and Congress considered the report of the Annapolis Convention. Some people questioned the constitutionality of the Annapolis Convention itself as well as its proposed convention. John Jay, the Confederation Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and in actuality the de facto prime minister of the United States, questioned the constitutionality of a convention directly or indirectly called by the authority of state legislatures. Jay suggested to George Washington that Congress should “plainly and in strong Terms declare that the present fœderal Government is inadequate to the Purposes for which it was instituted.” Instead of pointing out remedies, Congress should request that “the People of the States without Delay appoint State Conventions (in the way they chuse their General Assemblies) with the sole and express power of appointing Deputies to a general Convention.” This general convention should “make such alterations, amendments and additions thereto as to them should appear necessary and proper.” The convention should publish the changes and declare them in effect. Only in this way would “alterations in the Government” take place upon the “just authority” of “the People.”
Congress received the report of the Annapolis Convention by 20 September 1786. A grand committee (a committee with one member from each state) was appointed, but because of opposition to the proposed convention and the poor attendance at the end of the federal year, Congress took no further action before adjourning.
A number of states quickly appointed delegates to the proposed convention. The Virginia legislature passed an act on 23 November 1786 authorizing the appointment stating that such a convention was “preferable to a discussion of the subject in Congress.” The country faced a crisis. Sent to all of the state legislatures, the act (written by James Madison) was widely printed in newspapers throughout the country. Without referring to the Annapolis Convention report, the Massachusetts and New York legislatures passed resolutions asking Congress to call a convention to amend the Articles “to render them adequate to the preservation and support of the Union.” An endorsement by Congress would legitimize such a proposed convention.
After re-convening in February 1787, Congress read the report from its grand committee. Congress, however, postponed its consideration preferring instead to consider the New York and Massachusetts proposals for a convention. With nine states attending on 21 February 1787, Congress voted eight to one (Connecticut opposed) to call a convention to meet in Philadelphia on 14 May “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several [state] 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 and the preservation of the Union.” No reference was made to the Annapolis Convention report.
James Madison, a Virginia delegate in Congress, kept notes of the debates and explained that Congress was “much divided and embarrassed” on the question. Some “backward States” had “scruples against acceding” to the resolution “without some constitutional sanction.” Other states considered “any interference of Congress as proceeding from the same views which have hitherto exited their jealousies.” Some delegates thought that the resolution was a “deadly blow to the existing Confederation. . . . Others viewed it in the same light, but were pleased with it as the harbinger of a better Confederation.” All of the delegates, however, believed that the central government had to be rendered more efficient or it “could not last long.”
Congress sent printed copies of its resolution to the governors of every state. Between 3 March and 27 June six states agreed to send delegates to the proposed convention joining the six states that had already appointed delegates before Congress’ recommendation. Only Rhode Island refused to send a delegation to the Constitutional Convention. Without the congressional resolution of 21 February 1787, perhaps no new Constitution would have been proposed.