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Appointing Deputies to the Philadephia Convention

  • Act for Appointing Deputies to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, November 23, 1786
In November 1786, the General Assembly authorized the appointment of delegates to the Philadelphia Convention that would draft the U.S. Constitution.
Related documents:
  • Articles of Confederation
    Articles of Confederation, March 1, 1781
  • Madison's Notes from the Federal Convention
    James Madison's Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787
  • Washington Letter to Jefferson
    George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • United States Constitution
    United States Constitution, September 17, 1787
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Act for Appointing Deputies to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, November 23, 1786

In September 1786 a convention of commissioners from several states met in Annapolis, Maryland, to address the issues regarding commerce in the young nation. Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government did not have the power to regulate commerce and trade between and among the states. The meeting was called by Virginia. Nine states appointed commissioners to the convention, but commissioners from five states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia), met and adjourned before all the commissioners had arrived.

Before leaving Annapolis, the delegates prepared a report to the state governors and to Congress that detailed the need for another convention to revise the federal system of government. They recommended that the states appoint deputies to meet in Philadelphia the following May. The delegates proposed a convention rather than a debate in the existing Congress because as the Virginia Act for Appointing Deputies would later note, Congress would be too busy with ordinary business to give the matter proper attention and a separate convention could also include delegates who would were not congressmen. The Annapolis report stated, in addition, that because of the lack of power allowed to the current government, significant alterations were required to make the government work well enough to fulfill all the requirements of the Union.

On November 23, 1786, the General Assembly of Virginia passed an act for the appointment of seven deputies. Virginia was the first to pass such an act (three months before Congress agreed to call a convention), and forwarded this call to the other States. The act, written by James Madison, stated that

the general assembly of this commonwealth . . . can no longer doubt that the crisis is arrived at which the good people of America are 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 required, 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.

Several prominent Virginians declined to serve as delegates to the proposed Philadelphia convention. On December 4, 1786, the Virginia legislature appointed George Washington, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph, John Blair, James Madison, George Mason, and George Wythe as delegates. Patrick Henry wrote to Governor Randolph the following February declining the appointment without a specific reason. Thomas Nelson Jr. was named in Henry's place, but he too declined. Nelson was replaced by Richard Henry Lee, who also refused the appointment. Ultimately, James McClurg, a member of the Virginia Council of State was appointed as the final delegate.

The seat originally planned for Henry was not the only one nearly vacated. Washington also wrote a letter to Governor Randolph declining the appointment. This news was not made public, as Randolph, Madison, and other prominent Virginians hoped to persuade Washington to change his mind. Since Virginia was a driving force behind the convention, it was important that they arrive with an impressive delegation. They were successful, and as a result, Virginia had the most prestigious delegation at the Philadelphia convention.

For Educators

Questions

1. According to this broadside, what was the purpose of the convention in Philadelphia in May 1787?
2. When did this act pass the Virginia House of Delegates?
3. According to the Act, what is the least number of deputies that Virginia could send to Philadelphia? What is the highest?

Further Discussion

1. Why was it important for Virginia to pass this act before other states passed similar acts? Why was it important the Virginia delegates be prominent leaders and politicians?
2. What was the significance of the Annapolis Convention? What role did Virginians play in that meeting?

Links

Library of Congress Bibliographic Information-Act for Appointing Deputies

This Day in Virginia: September 14

Suggested Reading

Kaminski, John P., and Gaspare J. Saladino, eds. The Documentary History of the  Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. 8: Ratification of the Constitution by the States: Virginia, Vol. 1. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1988. xxxv–xxxvi.

Briceland, Alan V., “Virginia: The Cement of the Union.” In The Constitution and the States:  The Role of the Original Thirteen in the Framing and Adoption of the Federal  Constitution. Edited by Patrick T. Conley and John P. Kaminski, 201–337. Madison,  Wis.: Madison House, 1988.

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 FOEDERAL CONSTITUTION.

WHEREAS the Commissioners* who assembled at Annapolis, on the fourteenth of September last, for the purpose of devising and reporting the means of enabling Congress to provide effectually for the Commercial Interest of the United States, have represented the necessity of extending the revision of the foederal system to all its defects; and have recommended, that Deputies for that purpose be appointed by the several Legislatures to meet in convention in the city of Philadelphia, on the second day of May next; a provision which seems preferable to a discussion of the subject in Congress, where it might be too much interupted by the ordinary business before them; and where it would besides, he deprived of the valuable councils of sundry individual, who are disqualified by the constitution or laws of particular states, or restrained by peculiar circumstances from a seat in that Assembly:

 AND WHEREAS, the General Assembly of this Commonwealth, taking into view the actual situation of the Confederacy, as well as reflecting on the alarming representations made from time to time, by the United States in Congress, particularly in their act of the fifteenth day of February last, can no longer doubt that the crisis is arrived at which the good people of America are to decide the solemn question, whether they will by wise and magnanimous efforts reap the just fruits of that independance 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 interest, they will renounce the auspicious blessings proposed for them by the Revolution, and furnish to its enemies an eventual triumph over those, by whole virtue and valour, it has been accomplished:

 AND WHEREAS, the same noble and extended Policy, and the same fraternal and affectionate sentiments, which originally determined the Citizens of this Commonwealth, to unite with their Brethren of the other States, in establishing a foederal Government, cannot but be felt with equal force now as the motives to lay aside every inferior consideration, and to concur in such farther 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.
 Be it therefore enacted, by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, That seven Commissioners be appointed by joint ballot of both Houses of Assembly, who, or any three of them, are hereby authorized as Deputies from this Commonwealth to meet such Deputies as may be appointed and authorized by other states, to assemble in Convention at Philadelphia, as above recommended, and to join with them 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.

 And be it further enacted, That in case of the death of any of the said Deputies, or of their declining their appointments, the Executive are hereby authorized to supply such vacancies; 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.
  November 9, 1786, read the third time and passed the House of Delegates.
        JOHN BECKLEY, C. H. D.
 November 23, 1786, passed the Senate.
H. BROOKE, C. S.

* The printer of this document used the long or leading s, a character that looks similar to an "f" but is used as an "s."