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The Annapolis Convention: The Beginning of the Counterrevolution

[Chapter 12 of Rothbard’s newly edited and released Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.]

By 1787, the nationalist forces were in a far stronger position than during the Revolutionary War to make their dreams of central power come true. Now, in addition to the reactionary ideologues and financial oligarchs, public creditors, and disgruntled ex-army officers, other groups, some recruited by the depression of the mid-1780s, were ready to be mobilized into an ultra-conservative constituency. Inefficient urban artisans who wanted a central protective tariff to secure a nationwide market from more efficient British competition; merchants who wanted central navigation acts and other subsidies; western land speculators who wanted to prevent settlers from following the natural course of secession and collaboration with Spain; southern land speculators and settlers who wanted to drive Spain out of control of the Mississippi River; northwestern land speculators, fur traders, and expansionists who wanted an aggressive foreign policy to force the British out of their northwestern forts; southern slave owners who wanted to expand the realm and political rights of the slave states; commercial farmers who wanted an aggressive foreign policy to force open the European and West Indies ports and wage war against the Barbary coast nations; public debt-owners frightened by the legislation whipped up over Shays’ Rebellion; all these forces coalesced behind a radically nationalist program that urged the creation of a new government to rival or parallel the political structures exactly before the Revolutionary War. They wanted a strong central power that would control an aggressive national army and navy, wield a national taxing power to decimate the rights of the states and individuals, and federally assume public debts and army pensions.

Basically, urban merchants and artisans, as well as many slaveholding planters, united in support of a strong nation-state that would use the power of coercion to grant them privileges and subsidies. The subsidies would come at the expense of the average subsistence yeoman farmer who might be expected to oppose such a new nationalism.1 But against them, to support a new constitution, were the commercial farmers aided by the southern plantation-farmers who also wanted power and regulation for their own benefit. Given the urban support, the split among the farmer, and the support from wealthy educated elites, it is not surprising that the nationalist forces were able to execute their truly amazing political coup d’état which illegally liquidated the Articles of Confederation and replaced it with the Constitution. In short, they were able to destroy the original individualist and decentralized program of the American Revolution. Superior leadership and personality were critical factors in their victory. One of the important reasons was that the nationalist leaders of the different states were wealthier and better educated, generally knew each other, and could even communicate quickly. On the other hand, the “Anti-federalists” were scattered, poorer, and tended to be less educated and from more remote locations.2 And finally, in state after state, the Left no longer had effective or brilliant leadership, the natural leaders of the Antifederalists were either confused or had gone over to the nationalist camp on the Right.

The nationalists had tried legal and constitutional means to attain their ends, but each had failed on the ironclad requirement of the Articles of Confederation that amendments must be approved by every state. In 1786 the final nationalist attempt to grant Congress the power to levy an impost was blocked by New York. Now, in 1786, the conservatives made a final attempt to affect a legal review of the fundamental constitutional government of the United States. At the beginning of the summer, Congress appointed a committee that, on August 7, proposed some fundamental amendments to the Confederation. The amendments, drawn up largely by Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, granted Congress the exclusive power of regulating foreign and domestic commerce and levying duties on imports and exports, empowered Congress to enforce its regulations upon the states, gave Congress the exclusive power of making treaties, and established and empowered a federal court, which could take appeals from state courts. These amendments Pinckney proposed were, however, shot down by Congress. There was scarcely any likelihood of the unanimous approval by the states, and, in any case, a more likely route was coming to view. This new route promised a devious and hidden channel toward an illegal and thoroughly revolutionary coup d’état that would entirely eradicate the Confederation and replace it with a new centralized Constitution.

It all started innocently and innocuously enough; indeed, it started precisely as a way that the states could handle interstate problems themselves without turning to a central arbiter and regulator. Virginia and Maryland, whose natural boundary was the Potomac River, were anxious to open it up for navigation; the anxiety was especially propelled by the western land speculators in both states who wanted to provide an alternative route for western trade so that the Spanish Mississippi might not exert a fatal block on western settlement. But first Maryland and Virginia had to agree on use of the river. Consequently, in March 1785 commissioners from the two states met at Alexandria to consider navigation on the Potomac and also on their other joint boundary, the Chesapeake Bay. The commissioners adjourned to Mt. Vernon where, at the end of March, they quickly came to a fruitful agreement: all the joint waters were to be a free and common highway with citizens of each state free to use each other’s harbors. Tonnage duties exacted from ships entering both Maryland and Virginia would be equally divided between the states. All costs of public expenditures for navigation on the Potomac would be shared equally, while Virginia would pay five-eighths of the just expenses of navigation on the Chesapeake Bay. The commissioners also agreed to recommend uniform commercial regulation and imposts, a uniform currency, a joint Chesapeake navy, and an annual commercial conference between the two states.

The commissioners were understandably pleased with their success. Indeed, around this time an assembly of wealthy citizens of both states organized two companies, both of which were partially owned by George Washington, to exploit navigation on the Potomac. Pennsylvania, which had concluded a navigation agreement of its own on the Delaware River with New Jersey two years before, was as interested as the Maryland and Virginia land speculators in extending a route from the Potomac to the Ohio River. Hence, the commissioners decided to invite Pennsylvania to join Virginia and Maryland in a pact for common collaboration on the Ohio. The commissioners, who were heavily nationalist, had no definite nationalist aim in mind; quite the contrary, the agreements were compacts between the states themselves.3 Neither did Maryland have such a design in mind when it ratified the Mt. Vernon agreement in November 1785, a month after Virginia had done so, and enthusiastically proposed another conference that would include Delaware as well and handle all the remaining contractual commercial problems in the Chesapeake-Potomac area.

It was at this point that devious and sinister machinations began to enter the scene. For in the Virginia legislature the ultra-nationalist leader James Madison, who had pushed for the Alexandria treaty, saw the opportunity to transform the proposed meeting into a way to strengthen the power of Congress. On January 21, 1786, at the very end of the session of the Virginia legislature, Madison pushed through a proposal for a convention of commissioners from all states to provide for uniform commercial regulations and for “the requisite augmentation of the power of Congress over trade.” As one of the selected Virginia commissioners, Madison called such a convention for Annapolis on September 11. In his words, the location was chosen “to avoid the neighborhood of Congress, and the large commercial towns, in order to disarm the adversaries to the object, of insinuations of influence from either of these quarters.” Madison was so cautious about the meeting that he only told his close personal friends that its true objectives were not for commercial arrangements but instead the beginning of political reform.

Only nine states, however, decided to send delegates to the Annapolis Convention, and one of the recalcitrant was Maryland, presumably disgruntled at this complete perversion of the original aim of the conference it had proposed. Without Maryland there, the original members of the Chesapeake-Potomac agreement could not at all be persuaded. Furthermore, only five of the states—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia—bothered to send delegates in time to even attend the convention. Moreover, of the twelve delegates sent by the five states, only did three states (New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia) send the required number of delegates to Annapolis. Delegates for Massachusetts and Rhode Island were on their way, but the convention adjourned before they could arrive. It was clear that the Annapolis Convention could be only a total failure.

But the nationalist leadership possessed the capacity of turning a seemingly utter defeat into another step on the way toward victory. With the veteran reactionary John Dickinson, representing Delaware in the chair, the outstanding nationalist theorist Alexander Hamilton was able to draft a report for a committee of five leading delegates: Chair Egbert Benson, conservative lawyer for Dutchess County, New York, and a leading attorney for the New York oligarchy; Tench Coxe, a brilliant young Philadelphian merchant and advisor to Hamilton on ultra-nationalist economics; Abraham Clark of New Jersey, one of the originators of the idea of calling a constitutional convention; George Read of Delaware, an ultra-conservative economically affiliated with the Robert Morris interests and who had initially opposed American independence; and Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph, a leading southern planter who exerted a moderating influence on the resolutions of the committee (although James Madison was not on the committee, he played a critically important role in the entire proceedings). The committee’s report was unanimously approved by the full convention on September 14 and sent to Congress as well as the several states. It called for another all-state convention, this time to propose a comprehensive revision of the Articles so as “to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” But Hamilton mendaciously hastened to assure everyone that this would be a legal revision—in short, a revision that would have to be approved first by Congress and then by every state in order to go into effect. His resolution affirmed that a revision to be recommended by the general convention would be reported “to the United States in Congress assembled, as when agreed to by them, and afterwards confirmed by the Legislatures of every State.” The new convention of commissioners from each state was called for the following May in Philadelphia.4

[The footnotes in this article are different from the original version. Please consult the full book for all notes.]
  • 1. In 1785 Nathan Dane of Massachusetts noted that resistance to stronger government came from “the yeomanry or the body of the people.” Similarly, in 1786 the French Minister to the United States, Louis Otto, observed that the common people recognized that a stronger government meant “a regular collection of taxes, a strict administration of justice, extraordinary duties on imports, rigorous executions against debtors—in short, a marked preponderance of rich men and of large proprietors.” Main, The Antifederalists, p. 112.
  • 2. As historians have pointed out, “Antifederalist” is a misnomer, deliberately placed on the opposition by the victorious nationalists, who cunningly appropriated to themselves the benign term “Federalist.” In reality, those who wanted to adhere to the Confederation were the true “Federalists”; the nationalists who wanted a counterrevolutionary move toward the old colonial system of central and executive power were the real opponents of federalism. But the terms are too deeply grounded in American history to uproot at this juncture. But let it suffice to record the injustice experienced by the Antifederalists and the unscrupulous treaty of terms that was being put over on the American public. As one New York writer, “Countryman,” correctly observed in December 1787, after the Constitution was ratified, this “was the way some great men had to deceive the common people, and prevent their knowing what they were about.” Ibid., p. xxv.
  • 3. For a corrective to the usual accounts that make the steps from Alexandria to the Constitution seem natural, see McDonald, E Pluribus Unum, pp. 235ff. [Editor’s remarks] Burnett, The Continental Congress, pp. 663–65; Jensen, The New Nation, pp. 418–21.
  • 4. [Editor’s footnote] Burnett, The Continental Congress, pp. 665–68; Miller, Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation, pp. 136–41.

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