The Annapolis Convention of 1786: A Call for a Stronger National Government

An allegorical cartoon published a year after the adoption of the Articles of Confederation, celebrating America’s victory over Britain. America, sitting on the right, welcomes ships from all nations, while Britain, left, laments the loss of trade. American tariffs were used to punish the British and reward traders from other nations, but up until the Annapolis Convention—which led to the Constitutional Convention—perceptions outside of America were that the new country would never form an effective government, never unite, and eventually public opinion would sway toward reunification with Britain. (Library of Congress)

Speaking at South Carolina’s ratification convention in 1788, Charles Pinckney derided the Articles of Confederation as a “miserable, feeble mockery of government.” Pinckney was a young but significant figure at the Constitutional Convention along with his cousin Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. While coastal South Carolinians, rooted in Charleston, were likely to prevail in support of the new constitution, the piedmont and Appalachian areas of the state were firmly against it. Pinckney further alluded to a near-dissolution of the confederation government in 1785. If Pinckney was exaggerating for effect he was still not overstating the case very much. There had been calls for a new, or at least heavily reformed, government before 1786. At face value, the Annapolis Convention was supposed to be an attempt to improve trade between the loosely confederated states.[1] Its final recommendation was the creation of a new government.[2] This appears to be a trajectory away from the intent of commission, and Anti-Federalists would lay a similar accusation to the Constitutional Convention a year later stating that their commissions limited them only to revising the Articles of Confederation, not drafting a new constitution.[3]Too often Annapolis is explained as if the two issues were distinct in 1786. But the economic and defensive postures of the new country were inextricably bound.

The facts of what occurred between the formal adoption of the confederation government in 1781 and the Annapolis Convention in 1786 are not necessarily in dispute. The question plaguing some historians has been whether or not the conditions were bad enough to warrant changing the confederation government. The biggest problem before Annapolis was the interstate tariffs. The states had authority to lay any duty, tariff, or shipping fees as each government saw fit. The one aspect that united all of these tariff systems was that, for the most part, they were used to punish the British and reward traders from other European nations. One of the complaints of the Annapolis delegates in 1786 was that states also laid retaliatory tariffs against other states.

Here we also begin to see, as did British observers following the war, the growing divisions between the economies of the Northern and Southern states. The South’s agricultural market of raw materials relied on imports of other goods. The North’s manufacturing sector, especially in New York, could provide these goods. Just as in the twenty-first century, native manufacturing did not necessarily mean that those goods were desirable or more affordable than similar European goods. And European countries still held much of the Caribbean and Canada at this point and could easily reach the South.

Yet it is easy to overstate how frequent or intractable these interstate tariffs were. New York was frequently at odds with New Jersey and Connecticut. This particular rivalry culminated in the fight over the Sandy Hook lighthouse which New Jersey rented to New York. Little surprise that when Annapolis convened in 1786 that New Jersey gave its delegates the greatest leeway for reform. This was prescient, again, of the discussions about how far the Philadelphia convention was permitted to go the following year.

Only five states were present for the entirety of the convention—Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware. Many of the attendees names are recognizable from the Constitutional Convention. Despite the location, and for unknown reasons, Maryland’s delegates did not show up until the end. Equally unknown is why Maryland, an aristocratic Federalist stronghold, sent its most recalcitrant Anti-Federalists, including later Constitutional Convention delegate Luther Martin, to attend. There is some question over which one of the delegates came up with the idea for the Annapolis Convention. It is frequently attributed to Alexander Hamilton, although James Madison maintained throughout his life that it was his idea.[4] Hamilton certainly authored the final document recommending a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Yet much credit is due to one of the convention’s lesser-known figures. Despite the illustrious who’s who list Pennsylvania usually sent to conventions of the Founding Period, no one other than Tench Coxe attended Annapolis.

The Annapolis Convention goes to the heart of debates about the legitimacy of the new U.S. Constitution. But what is to be made of their reasoning? Was the situation over tariffs so serious that it merited not only a convention but further recommendation for a constitutionalconvention? Hamilton’s joint statement from Annapolis makes the surprising claim that the Congress of the Confederation would never have acted in concert to address the issue, thus necessitating a convention. Ultimately, it is the reasoning of men like Charles Pinckney that prevails today when discussing the Articles of Confederation.

James Madison and James Monroe’s letters during 1785 paint the clearest picture. The matter of tariffs preoccupied Madison throughout the year while he sat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Monroe served as Virginia’s delegate to the Congress of the Confederation. The call for a convention seemed to be the work of John Tyler Sr., father of the future tenth president who at the time was one of Virginia’s most prominent politicians and jurists.[5] For those familiar with the senior Tyler there is an irony that in 1788 he was one of the most strident Anti-Federalists opposing the new constitution. Then again. being an Anti-Federalist did not necessarily entail opposing reform of the Articles.[6] Madison was nervous about the call for a convention but he and Monroe both agreed that if there were to be any serious reforms they would have to arise from a convention.[7] Hamilton’s claim in the final address from Annapolis appeared vindicated; the Confederation Congress simply could not be relied upon to address the matter.

But why did this matter? What was the sense of urgency for men like Madison and Monroe? The answer comes from Madison. The call for Annapolis did concern the growth of wealth but not necessarily unrestrained greed. Madison hinted not only at the states’ unwillingness to pay their fair share of taxes but also the willingness of states to negotiate their own international trade deals while penalizing other American states. There was still a large percentage of the power brokers following independence who were not overly concerned or optimistic about the ability of the new union to remain such. These trade alliances with powerful European nations in the Caribbean opened the infant country to “foreign machinations.” Spain was among the most feared.[8]

Foreign influence seemed to be Madison’s chief concern, but what of Coxe’s accusations about prohibitive interstate tariffs? Historians in the twentieth century challenged this view of tariffs. The tariffs broadly fell under import duties, export duties (later unconstitutional), tonnage fees, and pilotage fees. Northern states had a greater interest in protecting new, native industries. In the South, Maryland and Virginia had the most extensive protections but they grew nearly non-existent as one traveled southward. Virginia’s imposts were rarely consistent and varied in their commitment to protecting American raw materials or industry. Duties on American goods varied between 1782 and 1789. Virginia duties were primarily on sumptuary goods and were not expanded until 1788 to include tea and tools. Overall, Virginia still favored American goods and had a preference for French imports over other European goods; like in all other states, British goods still faced fairly a strict embargo. Naturally, thanks to money shortages and the hovering war debts, Virginia would discount imposts if paid in specie.[9]

Georgia was much later to imposts and had similar sumptuary imposts as Virginia but also a thirty-shilling rate on slaves brought from the Caribbean. The Caribbean-centered duties were largely aimed, again, at the British. Georgia’s main protective duties were aimed at protecting its own liquor production. South Carolina’s imposts were similar. Trade was advantageous toward countries with treaties with the United States and much more disadvantageous to others. By the time of the Annapolis Convention, Coxe’s accusations about interstate duties were largely inapplicable to Southern states and, other than Virginia, none of them attended the convention. However, Lawrence Peskin also points out that the dependency on Britain before the war created a vacuum in the American economy and, given the fragility of the new nation, this would be something of a power vacuum which Madison and others had good reason to fear.

If retaliatory protectionism was not quite the issue in the South as some historians imagined, the North’s situation provided quite a different story. Merchants already had something of a bad reputation before and after the war. This reputation did not improve as a swamp of British goods flooded New York not only giving merchants the veneer of unpatriotic behavior but also of undermining manufacturing in the new country with British imports. Merchants, mechanics, and artisans found common ground in a desire for protectionism in manufacturing and shipping. This translated into support for a federal constitution and into successful legislative lobbying as protections were in place against foreign traders. New York presents an interesting case of a class of merchants and manufacturers seeking a federal tariff. Hamilton’s influence in this line of thinking of government as an engine of prosperity is palpable, although the ratification of the new constitution came down to razor thin margins the following year. This faith in federal protectionism was overestimated as the new congress represented Southern, as well as New York’s, agrarian interests as well, foreshadowing the Jeffersonian split that was to occur a little over a decade later.[10]

One of the more comical episodes of this period, previously mentioned, was a controversy among New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. New York, in this period of fervor for its native manufacturing, placed heavy imposts on foreign goods flowing northward from New Jersey and Connecticut. In retaliation, New Jersey placed a monthly rental fee on New York for the right to use its lighthouse in Sandy Hook. It’s important to note that New York’s agricultural class still dominated the legislature. In this case New York had a rivalry in its own borders over agricultural and produced goods but it was goods from New Jersey and Connecticut that paid the price. For an outsider looking in, however, New York was in an impressive commercial position. Zornow, like his contemporaries who challenged older notions of the Articles of Confederation, naturally questioned how discriminatory these fees were against Connecticut and New Jersey.[11] The fees on American-owned vessels, or goods originally imported on American vessels, were less than foreign. Similar to other states, the main target was Great Britain.

New York had originally voted against federal imposts that New Jersey favored, a fact known to the British. The British were also aware of conflicts between New Hampshire and Vermont and those between agrarian and commercial interests. New Jersey’s legislature, like New York’s, was dominated by agrarian interests whose constituents tended to dislike some of the new fees. Again, it is unsurprising that New Jersey’s commission to the Annapolis Convention was the most open-ended. Charles Pinckney urged New York to work with its neighbors especially since there were still threats from Indian tribes and, alone, New York’s military position was weaker than it would have been combined with its neighbors.[12]

In the case of Great Britain trade was not the only concern. Letters among prominent Americans, as well as British politicians and diplomats, make the post-war situation in the new country look quite bleak. Even though instruments of propaganda tend to overstate matters, perceptions of the Confederation Congress cannot be easily cast aside by critics. Bluntly stated, the Congress and, by extension, the whole country, was a laughing stock. This perception began during ratification of the Treaty of Paris. The Confederation Congress took nearly four months to form a quorum to ratify the treaty.[13] Even then neither Georgia nor New York were present to vote. Foreign intrigue was certainly a problem but correspondence between British agents in Canada and London made it clear that Britain was looking for a possible opportunity to take back its former colonies.[14]

During this period of American retaliatory tariffs, even those wishing to resume regular commerce were met with suspicion in Great Britain. The Morning Post of June 29, 1785 warned British merchants not to engage in business with the heavily-indebted Americans. Compounded with discriminatory tariffs, American businessmen, many of them counted among its founding fathers—like Nathaniel Gorham who became President of the Confederation Congress in June 1786—were derided as bad-faith actors.[15] Letters to and from friends of George Washington and Lord Cornwallis also indicate that both military leaders were aware of the rumblings.

British newspapers fanned these flames between 1784 and 1786. Headlines proclaiming American lawlessness and corruption were frequent. Benjamin Franklin, still in Europe at the time, believed most of them to be fabricated. The perceptions were clear: even if Great Britain did not retaliate militarily, the new country would never form an effective government, never unite, and eventually public opinion would sway toward reunification with the mother country.[16] The Public Advertiser summed it up in August 1785:

Anarchy their King—laws disregard—justice driven from their dominions—a people disunited in all—their shipping rotting in their neglected ports—their Empire crumbling to atoms—treacherous—wretched and poor—harassed by the Aborigines—unable to avenge or protect themselves, they are insulted by all—they are not a people to be trusted—a people laughed at and despised of all nations—an example of rebellion and ingratitude!!![17]

Meanwhile Jefferson, serving his second year as minister plenipotentiary in France alongside John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, had to deal with Spain. Like Madison, Jefferson also exchanged frequent correspondence with Monroe. Annapolis is not explicitly mentioned in these exchanges but it is evident that international matters necessitated more responsive and unified action than what the Confederation Congress could easily produce. Spain’s own diplomat to the United States, Diego de Gardoqui, was also attempting to negotiate a treaty with the confederation government. Monroe and Jefferson kept one another apprised of these foreign affairs in laborious detail. Gardoqui supplied the American rebels during the war and sought to secure navigation rights to the Mississippi River exclusively for the Spanish crown as repayment of a favor.

The infant United States carried little weight in world affairs and the proposed Gardoqui Treaty made this all the more obvious. Among the six signatories to the Treaty of Paris, the United States was the only one that lacked a standing navy; a fact that incensed Tench Coxe and Alexander Hamilton. The standing army was little better. British troops were still in North America. Spain had little reason to give much concern to the new nation either. John Jay had served as minister to Spain during the latter part of the war and, as the only foreign minister of the confederation period, made all negotiations with Spain and its interests in North America. The Congress refused to ratify the Gardoqui-Jay Treaty and still laid claims to Spanish land farther west while lacking any ability to defend those claims through force.

A year prior the Confederation Congress was practically begging its member states to allow the body to prohibit imports for a short period unless authorized by treaty. Later in 1785 they were also begging states to send specie payments before the government defaulted.[18] Monroe and Madison did not see economic issues like these as existing in a vacuum. Self-interest held the new nation hostage and potentially put it at risk for foreign domination and dissolution. Madison’s quote in an October 1786 letter is worth quoting at length:

There is no maxim in my opinion which is more liable to be misapplied, and which therefore more needs elucidation than the current one that the interest of the majority is the political standard of right and wrong. Taking the word “interest” as synonymous with “ultimate happiness,” in which sense it is qualified with every necessary moral ingredient, the proposition is no doubt true. But taking it in the popular sense, as referring to immediate augmentation of property and wealth, nothing can be more false. In the latter sense it would be the interest of the majority in every community to despoil & enslave the minority of individuals; and in a federal community to make a similar sacrifice of the minority of the component States.[19]

Historians questioning the severity of interstate tariffs were correct, although Madison’s and Hamilton’s concerns about foreign influence were nothing to ignore. The Spanish question was important and a lack of unanimous effort from the Confederation Congress left the region without a strong international partner at a time when Britain had very little reason to honor the Treaty of Paris barring pressure from its European neighbors who would not have gone to the defense of the new nation without incentives. If an alliance with Britain eventually suited any of the individual states, especially an economically powerful one, it would have put the country at risk of dissolution or subjugation. In the immediacy, the confederation government was hardly the factionalized morass it was often portrayed as, even by its contemporaries. However, it was ill-equipped to manage interstate and international commercial matters, especially as the economy related to national security, even if that term is something of an anachronism unused in that period.

It also important to recall that federalizing commercial questions did not mean that the powerful men in at Annapolis, including Tench Coxe, were advocating anything resembling free trade. However, as future events would bear out, the federalization of trade interests created a North-South division that rapidly soured in the ensuing decades. If Madison believed, as he intimated to Monroe, that the Annapolis Convention should only make baby steps toward its goals, that recommendation was abandoned in the final, public statement from the convention which called for the creation of a stronger national government. Why this occurred was unclear from the scarce records of the convention’s proceedings, but seems much clearer in light of the confederation to handle the exigencies of nationhood.

Opponents of the new national government had valid concerns, many of which were borne out in fierce debates at the convention, but confederations can only remain stable through responsive states. Switzerland is in many ways the sister republic to the United States.[20]The Swiss Confederation influenced the new United States and, later, the United States influenced the new united Switzerland. The original Swiss Confederation collapsed in 1798 due to the inability to mount a formidable enough response to French invasion, although internal division had festered for decades and would persist until 1848 when a federal state could be established with a stronger central government. Commercial friendship was superseded by concerns over dissolution and reconquering. The economy was tethered to the security of the nation in the absence of a standing army or navy.

That the Annapolis Convention departed from smaller, economic recommendations to an overhaul of the government should not come as too much of a surprise to critics who make it seem like that Hamilton’s final recommendation was a radical departure from its original commission. There were real problems, but even exaggerated ones—like interstate tariffs or the British claims of American anarchy—were still problematic enough to warrant what occurred in the summer of 1787. Divided sovereignty[21] was the best possible solution to avoid the calamities of the ideological extremes. The idea was not uniquely American in origin but its realization arguably was. Anti-Federalist contrarians in South Carolina and Maryland eventually found themselves in an echo chamber as ratification proceeded. Annapolis was not the first call for union but its clarion call to reform was the call that was finally heeded even if, by 1786, they were largely preaching to the choir. Though it would be a counterfactual exercise, critics of the Constitutional Convention would have to answer what should have occurred differently given the situation with Great Britain, Spain, and the rivaling states.


[1]Pickney’s contributions to the Convention are often lost to the present. There has been a lengthy debate about whether he even authored his own draft. He had formidable skills of persuasion. For a good biography of Pinckney see Marty Matthews, Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney(Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004). For a dated but useful look at Pinckney’s supposed draft of the constitution see Charles Nott, Mystery of the Pinckney Draught(New York, 1908).

[2]Virginia’s commission to the Constitutional Convention made mention of this discrepancy between the intended and actual outcomes of the Annapolis Convention. See Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention, III (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), 559.

[3]Max Farrand, ed. “Robert Yates and John Lansing to the Governor of New York” in The Records of the Federal Convention, 3: 244-7. In the same volume is Luther Martin’s Genuine Informationgleaned from his interminable speech to the Maryland legislature November 29, 1787.

[4]James Madison to Noah Webster, October 12, 1804. Also in Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention, 3: 539-51. This was from Madison’s preface in his Debates in the Convention of 1787.

[5]President Tyler could recall sitting in Jefferson’s lap as a boy. Weirdly enough, thanks to Tyler’s large family, and its remarkable septuagenarian virility, two of Tyler’s grandsons were alive as late as 2012, 150 years after their grandfather’s passing. See New York Magazine, January 27, 2012,

[6]“James Madison to James Monroe,” Library of Congress, January 22, 1786,

[7]“James Madison to James Monroe,” Library of Congress, February 24, 1786,

[8]“James Madison to James Monroe,” Library of Congress, June 4, 1786,

[9]William Frank Zornow, “The Tariff Policies of Virginia, 1775-1789,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography62, no. 3 (July 1954), 306-19. Zornow considered Tench Coxe and other writers as so eager to revise the Articles of Confederation that they “were not above mustering much doubtful evidence to support their point.” Also, Zornow, “Georgia Tariff Policies, 1775-1789,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 38, no. 1 (March 1954), 1-10 and Zornow, “Tariff Policies in South Carolina 1775-1789,” South Carolina Historical Magazine56, no. 1 (January 1955), 31-44.

[10]Lawrence Peskin, “From Protection to Encouragement: Manufacturing and Mercantilism in New York City’s Public Sphere, 1783-1795,” Journal of the Early Republic18, no. 4 (Winter 1998), 589-615.

[11]William Frank Zornow, “The Sandy Hook Lighthouse Incident of 1787,” The Journal of Economic History14, no. 3 (1954): 261-266.

[12]Zornow, “The Sandy Hook Lighthouse Incident,” 262.

[13]James Sparks, “Henry Laurens to President of Congress, April 24, 1784” in The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American RevolutionVol. I (Boston: N. Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1829), 762-4. The Treaty of Paris ratification can be found in Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 26, 28-29.

[14]Leon Fraser, “Treaty of Peace to the Annapolis Convention” in English Opinion of the American Constitution and Government, 1783-1798 (New York, NY: 1915), 31-45.

[15]London Chronicle, August 12, 1786, quoted in Fraser, “Treaty of Peace to the Annapolis Convention,” 37.

[16]Quoted in Fraser, “Treaty of Peace to the Annapolis Convention,” 35.


[18]“Motion of Mr. Gerry … that the states should supply their quotas of money,” Library of Congress, October 3, 1785, This motion was approved a little over a week later and distributed to the states.

[19]“James Madison to James Monroe,” Founders Online, Library of Congress, October 5, 1786,

[20]An excellent short introduction to this can be found in historian James Hutson’s The Sister Republics : Switzerland and the United States from 1776 to the Present (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Library, 1991). Luther Martin of Maryland’s writings show a fondness for Switzerland’s form of government.

[21]For the best exposition of divided sovereignty, and much else in early republic history, see Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union: Imperium in Imperio, 1776-1876(University of Kansas Press, 2000).

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