The Old Dominion Authorizes the Appointment of Delegates to the Constitutional Convention

New York Journal
The New York Journal, 4 January 1787, like many other newspapers, reprinted Virginia’s act authorizing the appointment of delegates.

From the very inception of the Articles of Confederation, many Americans felt that it was inadequate to serve as the country’s first constitution. Metaphorically speaking, it was felt that “the shattered fabric of the original constitution” had “to be repaired and enlarged, or a new and stately building erected upon the old foundation.” (Pennsylvania Herald, 19 May 1787) After numerous attempts to amend the Articles failed, the Virginia legislature on 21 January 1786 called for a convention of the states to recommend additional commercial powers for Congress. A dozen commissioners from five states assembled at Annapolis in mid-September 1786 and quickly adjourned after unanimously adopting a report that called for another convention with far broader powers to assemble in Philadelphia in May 1787 to address all the deficiencies of the Articles. The report was sent to Congress and to all of the states.

Some state legislatures questioned the legitimacy of both the Annapolis Convention and its proposed constitutional convention. Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation stipulated that amendments could only be proposed by Congress, while Article VI specifically prohibited “two or more states from entering into any treaty, confederation or alliance” without the consent of Congress. Thus, some of the states were reluctant to appoint delegates to the proposed Philadelphia convention unless Congress also agreed to such a convention. The New Hampshire legislature on 17 January 1787 in fact specified that its delegates to the Convention should attend only if “Congress shall signify to them that they approve of the said convention as advantageous to the Union, and not an infringement on the powers granted to Congress by the Confederation.” To assuage this reluctance, the Virginia legislature passed one of the most important acts in postwar America as it became the first state to authorize the appointment of delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

James Madison
James Madison

Written by James Madison and approved on 23 November 1786, the act acknowledged the crisis facing America. Patterned on George Washington’s famous farewell circular letter to the states in June 1783, the act was a brilliant political enunciation that encouraged

the good people of America to decide the solemn question, whether they will by wise and magnanimous efforts reap the just fruits of that Independence, which they have so gloriously acquired, and of that Union which they have cemented with so much of their common blood; or whether by giving way to unmanly jealousies and prejudices, or to partial and transitory interests, they will renounce the auspicious blessings prepared for them by the Revolution, and furnish to its enemies an eventual triumph over those by whose virtue and valour it has been accomplished.

The act then recommended that Americans should “lay aside every inferior consideration, and concur in such further concessions and provisions, as may be necessary to secure the great objects for which that Government was instituted, and to render the United States as happy in peace, as they have been glorious in war.”

Additionally, the act justified the proposal of amendments by a convention instead of relying on Congress as mandated by the Articles. Madison felt that a convention was “preferable to a discussion of the subject in Congress, where it might be too much interrupted by the ordinary business before them, and where it would besides be deprived of the valuable counsels of sundry individuals, who are disqualified by the Constitution or Laws of particular States, or restrained by peculiar circumstances from a seat in that Assembly.” Ironically, two years later Madison strenuously opposed a second constitutional convention to consider amendments to the newly-ratified Constitution, preferring instead that amendments be recommended only by Congress.

Lastly, the act provided that the legislature appoint seven delegates to the convention by a joint ballot of the two houses. The delegates were to join with the other delegates “in devising and discussing all such alterations and further provisions, as may be necessary to render the Federal 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.” Two weeks later, the legislature appointed a powerful delegation led by George Washington that also included James Madison, Governor Edmund Randolph, Patrick Henry, George Wythe, George Mason, and John Blair. Virginia’s act authorizing the appointment of delegates to the Constitutional Convention was sent to every state and was widely printed in newspapers throughout the country. With such a powerful recommendation, all of the other states, except for Rhode Island, agreed to follow Virginia’s lead “in so useful a Design.”