How the convention came about
It’s odd, looking back, how George Washington’s slightest move affected America’s destiny. From the time in 1756 when he was 21 and inadvertently fired the first shot of the seven-year-long French and Indian War that was fought in Europe, North America and India, to his Farewell Address that reverberated down the decades, momentous events often hung on even his small decisions. He wasn’t some Napoleon or Caesar, self-consciously trying to impose his will upon the world. He was more like a Churchill in the 20th century, always finding himself at the center of things, making decisions with radically surprising consequences.
Take, for example, how the Constitutional convention that changed a confederation into a nation began in Washington’s interest in developing the West.
Washington was, among other things, a land surveyor, and, among other things, a speculator in western lands. Long before Kentucky split off from Virginia – long before Virginia became a state, for that matter – Washington had explored and purchased land on the far side of the Appalachian mountains. Like so many British colonials of his day, he believed in the West as the future, and that belief did not slacken when he and his state ceased to be British and became American.
So now here he was, back from the Revolution, thinking to resume his life as an active gentleman farmer. There was the West, seeking to be developed, and here was the East, a willing trading partner, if not for the geographical barrier posed by the mountains. Daniel Boone and James Harrod and their families, and others from inland North Carolina would settle Kentucky by crossing the Cumberland Gap, but trails and passes that were suitable for pack trains were not sufficient to accommodate trade.
To transport goods in bulk, the 18th century relied upon water. Could the Potomac somehow be connected to the Ohio? Or, if not, could it be improved by canal to the point that only a short manageable portage would connect the two rivers? If it could be done, the river that flowed past Mount Vernon might become the key to opening up the vast Western land between the mountains and the Mississippi.
So, one thing leading to another, in the summer of 1784, James Madison proposed to the Virginia House of Delegates (of which he was again a member, after having served in the Confederation Congress) that the state select commissioners and have them meet representatives of neighboring Maryland to confer about navigation of the Potomac River. Washington hosted the meeting, which became known therefore as the Mount Vernon Conference. They met in March 1785, came to an agreement, passed it along to their respective state legislatures, and it became an interstate compact.
But Madison, who handled the compact in the Assembly, was interested in more than the Potomac. He recognized that trade, for instance, could be successfully regulated only by the general government, not state by state. He suggested that state governments appoint commissioners “to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situation and trade of said states; to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial regulations may be necessary to their common interests and permanent harmony,” and at his instance, the Assembly passed a resolution inviting all the states to meet for a commercial conference to be held in Annapolis in September, 1786.
That conference, in turn, was in itself nothing much. Delegates from only five states showed up, and they met for only three days. But one of the men who did arrive was Alexander Hamilton, and he drafted a call for all the states to appoint commissioners to revise the Confederation so as to make it more effective. The group approved his draft, and suggested that the representatives meet in Philadelphia in May.
By this time Shay’s Rebellion had made everyone aware of the weaknesses in their present government, and many had come to believe that the Confederation as it existed was not adequate to meet the challenges of the day. For one thing, the Articles of Confederation could only be amended by unanimous vote. Such a requirement always makes it hard – usually impossible – to tackle difficult problems, and there were plenty of difficult problems to be tackled. What was needed was more than a more effective way to impose taxes and execute a foreign policy. The times called for a redefinition of relationship between the states and the national government, and between both and the people.
When Virginia announced that it would send a delegation led by Washington (whom Madison had persuaded to accept), five other states quickly committed to attend. Then Congress, by passing a resolution, made it the prospective gathering official. After that, all the other states except Rhode Island committed to attend as well, and the stage was set for the miracle.
You can’t quite say it was because Washington was interested in the West – but you can say that it wouldn’t have happened, or at least wouldn’t have happened in the same way, if he hadn’t been.