History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States

Author: Louis Guillaume Otto  | Date: 1882

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The Annapolis Convention (1786)



. . . THE commissioners appointed by various states to propose a general plan of commerce, and to give to congress the powers necessary to execute it, assembled at Annapolis in the course of last month. But five states alone being represented, they did not think it best to enter into the main question, and confined themselves to addressing to congress and the different legislatures a report which characterizes the present spirit of the politics of this country.

In translating this report I have not merely taken the pains to put it into French, but to render it intelligible. The effort was made to give to the original an obscurity which the people will penetrate with difficulty, but which the strong and enlightened citizens will not fail to turn to account.

For a very long time, my lord, the necessity of imparting to the federal government more energy and vigor has been felt, but it has also been felt that the excessive independence granted to the citizens, as regards the states, and to the states as regards congress, is too dear to individuals for them to be deprived of it without great precautions.

The people are not ignorant that the natural consequences of an increase of power in the government would be 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.

It is, however, for the interest of the people to guard as much as possible the absolute freedom granted them in a time when no other law was known but necessity, and when an English army, as it were, laid the foundations of the political constitution.

In those stormy times it was necessary to agree that all power ought to emanate only from the people; that everything was subject to its supreme will, and that the magistrates were only its servants.

Although there are no nobles in America, there is a class of men denominated "gentlemen," who, by reason of their wealth, their talents, their education, their families, or the offices they hold, aspire to a preeminence which the people refuse to grant them; and, although many of these men have betrayed the interests of their order to gain popularity, there reigns among them a connection so much the more intimate as they almost all of them dread the efforts of the people to despoil them of their possessions, and, moreover, they are creditors, and therefore interested in strengthening the government, and watching over the execution of the laws.

These men generally pay very heavy taxes, while the small proprietors escape the vigilance of the collectors.

The majority of them being merchants, it is for their interest to establish the credit of the United States in Europe on a solid foundation by the exact payment of debts, and to grant to congress powers extensive enough to compel the people to contribute for this purpose. The attempt, my lord, has been vain, by pamphlets and other publications, to spread notions of justice and integrity, and to deprive the people of a freedom which they have so misused. By proposing a new organization of the federal government all minds would have been revolted; circumstances ruinous to the commerce of America have happily arisen to furnish the reformers with a pretext for introducing innovations.

They represented to the people that the American name had become opprobrious among all the nations of Europe; that the flag of the United States was everywhere exposed to insults and annoyance; the husbandman, no longer able to export his produce freely, would soon be reduced to extreme want; it was high time to retaliate, and to convince foreign powers that the United States would not with impunity suffer such a violation of the freedom of trade, but that strong measures could be taken only with the consent of the thirteen states, and that congress, not having the necessary powers, it was essential to form a general assembly instructed to present to congress the plan for its adoption, and to point out the means of carrying it into execution.

The people, generally discontented with the obstacles in the way of commerce, mad scarcely suspecting the secret motives of their opponents, ardently embraced this measure, and appointed commissioners, who were to assemble at Annapolis in the beginning of September.

The authors of this proposition had no hope, nor even desire, to see the success of this assembly of commissioners, which was only intended to prepare a question much more important than that of commerce. The measures were so well taken that at the end of September no more than five states were represented at Annapolis, and the commissioners from the northern states tarried several days at New York, in order to retard their arrival.

The states which assembled, after having waited nearly three weeks, separated under the pretext that they were not in sufficient numbers to enter on business, and, to justify this dissolution, they addressed to the different legislatures and to congress a report, the translation of which I have the honor to enclose to you.

In this paper the commissioners employ an infinity of circumlocutions and ambiguous phrases to show to their constituents the impossibility of taking into consideration a general plan of commerce and the powers pertaining thereto, without at the same time touching upon other objects closely connected with the prosperity and national importance of the United States.

Without enumerating these objects, the commissioners enlarge upon the present crisis of public affairs, upon the dangers to which the confederation is exposed, upon the want of credit of the United States abroad, and upon the necessity of uniting, under a single point of view, the interests of all the states.

They close by proposing, for the month of May next, a new assembly of commissioners, instructed to deliberate not only upon a general plan of commerce, but upon other matters which may concern the harmony and welfare of the states, and upon the means of rendering the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.

In spite of the obscurity of this document, you will perceive, my lord, that the commissioners were unwilling to take into consideration the grievances of commerce, which are of exceeding interest for the people, without at the same time perfecting the fundamental constitution of congress.

It is hoped that new commissioners will be appointed, with ample powers to deliberate on these important objects, and to place congress in a position not only to form resolutions for the prosperity of the union, but to execute them.

George Bancroft, (New York, 1882), II, Appendix, 399–401.


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Chicago: Louis Guillaume Otto, "The Annapolis Convention (1786)," History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States, ed. George Bancroft and trans. Anonymous in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1902), 186–187. Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CK3YAYMG7YHL2PY.

MLA: Otto, Louis Guillaume. "The Annapolis Convention (1786)." History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States, edited by George Bancroft, and translated by Anonymous, Vol. II, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 3, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1902, pp. 186–187. Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CK3YAYMG7YHL2PY.

Harvard: Otto, LG, 'The Annapolis Convention (1786)' in History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States, ed. and trans. . cited in 1902, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York, pp.186–187. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CK3YAYMG7YHL2PY.