University of Wisconsin–Madison

Instructions to the Convention Delegates

By 1786 many American leaders agreed that the Articles of Confederation needed to be amended. A significant question was whether these changes should be proposed by Congress or by a general convention of the states. Virginia took the initiative and invited other states to meet at Annapolis to discuss commercial matters. The Annapolis commissioners met, wrote a report, and adjourned precipitously. The report called for a general convention to meet the following May in Philadelphia “to render the constitution of the Fœderal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union; and to report such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress Assembled.” The report caused debates in Congress with John Jay noting, “such a convention appears questionable.”

Virginia began the process of authorizing the election and then selecting delegates in November 1786. By mid-February 1787 six states had elected delegates in response to the report of the Annapolis Convention. In early 1787 the legislatures of New York and Massachusetts instructed their delegates to Congress to push for congressional authorization of a convention, which culminated in a resolution passed on 21 February. The congressional call for a convention was narrowly constructed stating that the convention’s purpose was “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Three states (New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina) quickly elected delegates to the convention based on the congressional resolution. Three more states (Connecticut, Maryland, and New Hampshire) followed in May and June. Rhode Island refused to send delegates.

Two introductory essays taken from Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787, Volume I will provide you with more detailed accounts of the steps taken by Congress (pdf) and the states (pdf) in calling for the Philadelphia Convention. Our selections below begin with the report of the Annapolis Convention followed by the authorizing acts of the state legislatures. Some states authorized and elected delegates in the same act, while others passed separate authorizations before they elected delegates.