Americans had a myriad of concerns in the years following the end of the War for Independence. Many of those issues centered on the Articles of Confederation and the powers delegated to Congress. Previous attempts to amend the Articles of Confederation inside and outside of Congress proved unsuccessful. All proposals to give Congress powers to tax and regulate commerce failed to get the approval of all thirteen state legislatures which was required by Article XIII of the Articles of Confederation. In September 1786 those who were of a nationalist mindset gathered at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland ostensibly to discuss the country’s commercial problems. Nine states elected commissioners, but when only five delegations attended, they precipitously wrote a report and adjourned. The report called for a convention to be held at Philadelphia the following May to discuss a broader agenda. Among the many considerations that Americans faced during the “critical period,” the items we have listed below certainly paint a somber backdrop as the delegates assembled in Philadelphia to consider the “exigencies of government and the preservation of the union.” Many of these selections are from our Commentaries on the Constitution (CC), Volume XIII and Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 (CDR), Volume I. The Introduction (pdf) from Constitutional Documents and Records, 1776-1787 will give you a broad perspective of the issues extant during the Confederation.
Attempts to Revise the Articles of Confederation
Soon after the Treaty of Paris (1783), the dismal reality of national governance under the Articles was obvious to those with a continental outlook. There were several failed attempts by Congress to amend the country’s first constitution.
Monarchial Tendencies in America
Late in the Revolutionary War through the 1780s there were some who felt that the only solution to the crises facing America was to return to the British Empire or to establish a temporary monarchy or dictatorship to stabilize the nation.
The Desire for Separate Confederacies
The circumstances facing Americans led some to advocate dividing the United States into three or four separate confederacies or perhaps even into thirteen separate republics.
The Shadow of Shays’s Rebellion
This rebellion in western Massachusetts alarmed many Americans and revealed the need for a stronger government capable of suppressing internal insurrection. Fears of democratic state radicalism, as epitomized by Rhode Island, were also prevalent. Others, however, were satisfied that the states themselves were capable of suppressing internal violence–even in the case of Shays’s Rebellion.
The Navigation of the Mississippi River
Spain’s prohibition of American navigation on the Mississippi River angered Southerners. Efforts to resolve the issue illustrated the weakness of the United States and the sharp sectional divisions in the country.
Instructions to the Convention Delegates
State legislatures instructed their delegates to the general Convention. Some instructions were based on the report of the Annapolis Convention while others were premised on the congressional resolution of 21 February 1787 calling for a convention to meet in Philadelphia.
John Adams and the Responses to A Defence of the Constitutions of the United States of America
Late in 1786, John Adams while serving as the American ambassador in England began collecting material to be published for circulation in America. Fearing the social turmoil that resulted when governments were overly democratic or aristocratic, Adams advocated for a balanced system of government in this treatise. His detractors and allies found plenty of material in it to both criticize and praise him.
The Campaign Against the Critics of the Constitution
Before and during the meeting of the Philadelphia Convention, most Americans wanted to accept whatever the Convention proposed. As news circulated that the Articles of Confederation might be abandoned altogether, small pockets of opposition formed. A variety of charges were leveled at these critics of a new constitution. Of particular note is Alexander Hamilton’s public criticism of New York Governor George Clinton.
Assessment of the Constitutional Convention and of Individual Delegates
The Constitutional Convention has long been the focus of scholarly and popular inquiry. The assessments range from critical to complimentary. We have assembled a collection of primary sources that offer insights into the Convention itself as well as a few of the prominent delegates.
The Confederation Congress and the Constitution
The Constitutional Convention recommended that the new Constitution should be submitted to state conventions for ratification. Once nine state conventions ratified, the Constitution would be implemented among the ratifying states. Congress, whose approbation was not needed for ratification, was to serve as a conduit through which the Constitution was forwarded to the state legislatures.