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Alexandria and the Road to the Constitutional Convention

Alexandria, Virginia

March 21, 1785

Two Virginians were no-shows. They were supposed to meet in Alexandria for an important meeting with four neighbors from across the Potomac River in Maryland. Three (not four) Marylanders arrived on schedule. They were well prepared and eager to settle an important matter of mutual benefit to both states: Fishing rights.

In fact, one of the Marylanders, Thomas Stone, had jubilantly wrote to George Washington on January 28, 1785. Stone told Washington that he was going to be in Alexandria in March, and that he hoped to visit Washington at Mount Vernon after the important meeting. Stone's letter also explained the details of the meeting as follows:

Mr. Jenifer, Johnson, Chase & myself are appointed Commissioners to Settle the Jurisdiction and Navigation of the Bay & the Rivers Potomac & Pocomoke with the Commissioners of Virginia. We have also instructions to make application to Pennsylvania. for leave to clear a Road from Potomac to the Western Waters—Our Assembly propose the Meeting of the Commissioners to be on the 21st of March at Alexandria

Thomas Stone was accompanied by Samuel Chase, and Major Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer. Major Jenifer dined with Washington at Mount Vernon on the evening of March 20. He then left for Alexandria on March 21. Although Washington did not participate in the meeting, he was very supportive of it.

Among the bustling taverns along Alexandria's Cameron Street, two Virginia commissioners- James Madison and Edmund Randolph- were nowhere to be seen. The Marylanders must have felt annoyed. They made the trek across the Potomac River, and had been stood-up! This was an opportunity for both states to settle waterway and navigation disputes not only on the Potomac but also the Pocomoke and Chesapeake Bay. However, while Madison and Randolph were not there, two other Virginians, George Mason and Alexander Henderson, did arrive to represent the Commonwealth. In fact, Washington had sent one of his carriages to give George Mason a ride to Alexandria.

March 1785 was only one year and a half after the end of the Revolutionary War. On December 23, 1783, General Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He returned to civilian life again, which was a remarkable act of virtue and a magnanimous display of civic duty. In fact, one of the first places he celebrated his return to private life was in Alexandria, Virginia on December 31, 1783 at Duvall's Tavern on Cameron Street.

After Washington gave up his sword for his ploughshare, one of his first initiatives was a business venture called the Potomac Company. The Potomac Company was established to expand the Potomac River into the interior of the country. George Washington and his business partners in Alexandria believed the Potomac River was the gateway to the west. They were eager to develop a series of locks and canals that would make the Potomac more navigable.

However, during the early 1780s, the new American nation was struggling. The government rested on the Articles of Confederation, which were proving insufficient to deal with several of the most pressing challenges that America faced. These challenges included the massive debt that the government and states had accrued during the Revolutionary War. Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison recognized that there would have to be a stronger central government to adequately deal with the nation’s woeful financial situation.

Furthermore, American states were acting like sovereign nations with competing claims to waterways such as the Potomac and Chesapeake Bay. These issues compelled at least two (with hope for a third) to figure out a way to work together. Therefore, the meeting in Alexandria was meant to be an important first step in the direction of mutual cooperation. If all went well, it might provide the template for a national convention.

James Madison and Edmund Randolph's absence was due in part to ignorance. Virginia Governor Patrick Henry neglected to inform the two men that their presence was requested as commissioners. Nevertheless, the Marylanders along with Mason and Henderson patiently waited, and initial conversations began in Alexandria.

George Washington was interested in how the meeting was going. He made a trip to Alexandria on March 22. Washington must have been informed that the other Virginia commissioners were not there. It is believed that there may have been an agreement to wait one more day for Madison and Randolph.

On March 24, Washington wrote, "Sent my Carriage to Alexandria for Colo. Mason according to appointment—who came in about dusk." Washington's mention of an "appointment" has brought speculation about an agreement to wait and then bring Mason and the other commissioners to Mount Vernon. On the following day, March 25, the three Marylanders and Alexander Henderson arrived at Mount Vernon. This must have been a pleasant surprise for Thomas Stone. He was finally getting his opportunity to visit George Washington at Mount Vernon!

The commissioners enjoyed Washington's hospitality for several days. But, they also talked business and their discussions focused on rights to the Potomac River. Finally, on March 28, an agreement was reached. A total of thirteen clauses defined the waterways as "a common Highway Free for Use and Navigation of any vessel belonging" to Virginia or Maryland. Despite the initial hurdles, compromise was attained, and the commissioners had accomplished their goals. Since the meeting had been moved from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, we know this agreement as the Mount Vernon Compact.

It was the first of its kind in the newly formed confederation of American states. But, it foreshadowed something greater. Both the Virginia and Maryland legislatures approved the compact. Momentum continued to build off of what happened in Alexandria and Mount Vernon. The Mount Vernon Compact set the stage for a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland. The Annapolis Convention began on September 11, 1786. At this convention, the Virginians were on time. In fact, it was James Madison, who played an active role in the Convention. Surprisingly, the Marylanders did not show up to the convention even though it was in their own state!

The meeting in Annapolis was formerly called a "Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government." Unlike the Mount Vernon Conference, there was no formal agreement worked out between the states. On the other hand, something more consequential happened. The Annapolis Convention called on Congress and the states to send representatives to a larger convention. In fact, the follow-on convention was designed to address more than commercial rights and interstate commerce. It was supposed to address the defects at the heart of the Articles of Confederation.

The Annapolis Convention was the catalyst for a convention in Philadelphia to be held in 1787. George Washington enthusiastically supported this step as he believed that the national government was inefficient and dysfunctional in its current state. During the time of the Annapolis Convention, another significant issue had stirred in Massachusetts. Shays' Rebellion was an armed rebellion in western Massachusetts. It provided yet another example of the national government's limitations.

Thus, the stage was set for the Constitutional Convention. George Washington had already offered his leadership at a successful convention in Mount Vernon. He was the natural choice to lead the larger one in Philadelphia. At Madison's urging, George Washington did agree to lead the Virginia delegation in Philadelphia. He was then elected to be President of the Constitutional Convention.

The Constitutional Convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787. It successfully re-framed and re-designed the entire American system of government from a confederation into the constitutional republic that exists today.

James Madison might have been a no-show in Alexandria in March 1785, but he made up for it in Annapolis and then Philadelphia. Edmund Randolph was also a delegate in Philadelphia along with George Mason. Major Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer attended the Constitutional Convention as one of the Maryland delegates. Therefore, two of the five commissioners from Alexandria later went to Philadelphia. The two no-shows were also present in Philadelphia.

The road to the Constitutional Convention began in Alexandria, Virginia. When Washington traveled to the city on March 22, he invited the conversations to continue at Mount Vernon. If Washington had not been interested in the meeting, he might not have traveled to check on its progress. Thus, there might have been no Mount Vernon Compact, and the frustrated Marylanders may have gone home complaining about their Virginia neighbors. But, Washington's leadership was on full display in March 1785. The meetings, which began in Alexandria and finished at Mount Vernon, provided both the model and inspiration for the Philadelphia Convention that framed America's constitutional form of government.


1 Comment

David Heiby
David Heiby
Aug 18, 2023

Excellent article!

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