A brief history of evolving and learning when and how to affect change.
By Michael Kapic – April 2, 2020
A watershed moment occurred in 2013 with the publication of the historical course that had led to our Constitution and the critical understanding of America’s founding history. Early colony/state association gatherings or conventions had previously received only a minuscule amount of scholarly attention. No history is without its complexities and the pre-founding period is no exception. This essay argues that these conventions were key to the development of America’s prehistory, birth, and constitutional foundation. It illustrates the that safe process used then is still applicable today.
When anxieties rose due to political and economic conflict, citizen solutions lay not in representative assemblies, but rather in the more reliable and recommendatory colonial/state convention process. These conventions empowered the states, through federalism, with the necessary tools and authority to create a new Nation. What follows is a brief summary of the evolution of the concept adopted by the early colonies and in our post-Independence history by the states to consensually build America.
To many Americans, the United States magically appeared on July 4, 1776. Actually, its foundation began at least a century and a half earlier. America’s founding era (1750s – 1790s) came about as the result of an evolutionary process of citizen associations whose origins date back to the Sumerians (southern Iraq) ca 2300 BC. This self-governance process matured over millennium as associations and constitutions formed.
One of the earliest forms of a constitution was developed in Athens in 594 BC. In 508 BC Cleisthenes reformed the Athenian constitution toward democracy and the “rule by the people” consisting of three branches of governance. By AD 438, Roman law was reorganized into the Codex Theodosianus. In 1215 the Magna Carta was signed at a convention called by the nobility that included King John and local commoners at Runnymede, England. Thus, began the transition of top-down to bottom-up governance.
America’s British colony gatherings began in the early 1600s. In 1639, the first modern constitution was written in convention at Hartford CT consisting of a preamble and eleven articles describing the rules for self-governance including term limits for the governor. Many thousands of conventions (aka councils, congresses, committees of correspondence and safety) have occurred in towns, counties, regions, and nationally since. In the colonies, and then the states, 648 recorded events have been identified by historians.
The idea of sitting down with others to consensually solve a problem seemingly larger than life itself came out of the process of people gathering and developing associations with one another. Associations evolved from families, communities, friendships, congregations, volunteer groups, industry groups, and fellowships of many types.
Early community associations resolved local problems such as security, safety, trade, and Indian negotiations. Their administrative protocols evolved into a standard operating procedure.
Immigrants arrived in a hostile land after making the dangerous Atlantic crossing fleeing persecution. The colonist’s motives were simple: self-defense and religious freedom; in short: security and liberty.
In the British colonies first hundred years or so, there were two linked governance systems. The first was a top-down ruling from the English Crown and Parliament. The second was bottom-up and came from within the colonies and the people organizing themselves and electing assembly representatives.
The elected assemblies (legislatures) represented the people in codifying local law and as their voice to the Crown and Parliament. These legislatures were overseen by the Crown’s governor and its local Council.
By the early Founding period most agreements (compacts, constitutions, charters, proprietary, royal) were between monarchs and their nobility, governors, proprietors, or corporations. For the people to adequately satisfy their motives for security and liberty, they spoke outside of their assemblies through their conventions. They joined together seeking help through consensus rather than an exchange for wealth or power. Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville commented that people joining such associations were the basis for citizenship.
Convention’s administrative procedures evolved. They tended to establish the procedure of one colony, one vote; composing their own rules; colony assemblies selected and commissioned delegates; chose their own committees; kept records; elected a president and non-delegate secretary and closed sine die. They met not to legislate but to debate and agree on a recommendation that they would take home for approval.
As the population grew in the late 17th and early 18th century’s, international issues impacted England and therefore the colonies (i.e. the Glorious Revolution, Seven Years War, mercantilism). As a result, the frequency of calling for conventions grew to include defense, English boycotts, inflation, and price controls. In time more difficult issues arose such as inland navigation, foreign trade, embargos, and intercolonial trade tariffs.
New outside factors began to influence the development of America in the mid to late 18th century as the Enlightenment influenced general thinking. Mercantilism dominated as the free market and the Industrial Revolution were only just budding in Northern Europe and England, not arriving in America until the late 18th century.
Transformation: legislature to convention
By the early 1770’s, Britain needed help with its war debt and turned to the colonies with Acts (Stamp, Tea, Sugar, Intolerable, etc). Colonial anxiety grew with inflation, manufacturing regulations, and boycotting of English goods. In addition, political issues included a weakening English governance and random troop violence, safety with neighboring Indians and ineffective mercantilism.
A frustration with elected assemblies to express the will of the people grew as governors enacted speedy and arbitrary closings of assemblies without ending them.
Through the 1760s, and early ‘70s, tensions between the colonies and England rose. By the mid-1770s the colonies experienced a radical shift toward independence.
The purpose of the 1774 convention, the First Continental Congress, was to debate solutions for responding to Parliament to end the Intolerable Acts. John Rutledge noted that conventions were for “recommendations.” By April of 1775, tensions broke into violence in Lexington and Concord, igniting the Revolutionary War. The next convention, the Second Continental Congress was scheduled for May 10, 1775.
The Revolutionary War began three weeks before the Second Congress was to convene as a convention. However, it quickly became an ad-hoc committee and then morphed into a de facto legislative government. Over the next six years it was knee-deep in the business of creating an army, finding a commander, drafting a statement declaring independence, writing a constitution (Article of Confederation), developing allies, financing its efforts, and sending a peace committee to Paris.
A year later the Declaration was released and, as if a light switch had been flipped off, a radical change in the functioning of state assemblies occurred. Assemblies switched from standing up to the Crown for the people and began writing arbitrary and conflicting legislation. Chaos ruled the day.
Talk began for convening “a general council, or convention of faithful, honest, and discerning men…” in which a convention is “not to exercise legislative power, but only to debate freely, and agree upon particulars…”
The Second Continental Congress agreed with John Adams assertion that “defence of this colony” against Britain “to erect the whole building with their own hands upon the broadest foundation,” and that could only be done “by convention of representatives chosen by the people in the several colonies.”
The First and Second Congresses were defining moments for America. They also helped to define and elevate the prestige of a convention of the people’s rights over an ordinary legislature. For the people, the convention had become the extraordinary instrument of a constitution-making body. Other conventions soon followed. Conventions had by this time a well-developed and trusted operating system.
Related Events 1768 to 1785
- Sept 1768 Boston, MA, 100 commissioners representing 250 towns met to discuss the arrival of British troops & dissolution of the House.
- Nov 1777 Second Continental Congress approved Chair John Dickinson’s (PA) penning of the Articles of Confederation & sent it to the states.
- 1777 to 1779 five major conventions to debate currency, public credit, price control, and the War occur.
- Jan 29, 1780, Philadelphia, PA convention, discuss price controls
- May 1780 Charleston SC falls to the British.
- July 1780 French allied troops set foot on American soil.
- Aug 3-9, 1780, Boston, MA, convention suggested Congress’ power be better defined & the states be led by one supreme head. 
- Oct 1780 British troops are beaten back at the Battle of Kings Mountain.
- Nov 8-22, 1780, Hartford, CT convention, same as Boston: enabling Congress to collect taxes to pay the interest on the increasing debt.
- Mar 1781 MD ratifies Articles of Confederation (100% & 13th state).
- Mar 1781 British troops victorious at Battle of Guilford Courthouse, NC.
- Jun 26-28, 1781, Providence, RI convention, military affairs & VT’s statehood request.
- Oct 1781 Washington & French allies victorious at Yorktown, VA—last War battle.
- July 1782 NY assembly suggested another convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.
- Nov 1782 “Treaty of Paris” signed by England, America, France, & Spain, ending the War.
- Feb 1783 MA assembly called for a modest convention: taxation by impost & excise.
- Nov 1783 Washington’s Continental Army disbanded.
- May 1785 MA Gov. Bowdoin pleads with assembly to call a convention to amend Articles of Confederation giving Congress more authority.
In the early 1780’s:
Sentiment in Congress grew for a broad range convention, but it had no authority to call one.
- Under the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. lacked a strong central government while the states were individually more powerful. Broad abusive governance and declining economic stability grew. And as siblings do, they quarreled among themselves, individually establishing their own tariffs, currency, and regulations.
- Richard Henry Lee (VA) noted many members were suggesting “the calling upon the states to form a convention for the sole purpose of revising the Confederation…to enable Congress to execute with more energy, effect, & vigor, the powers assigned it.”
- George Washington (VA) protested the “want of energy in the Federal Constitution…which I wish to see given to it by a Convention of the People.”
May 25, 1785, Mount Vernon, VA
The Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay waterways between Virginia and Maryland drew the interest of the young country for its potential to increase commerce and trade westward to the Shenandoah and Ohio Valleys.
The Virginia and Maryland assemblies realized the need for jurisdictional agreements and authorized the creation of the Potomac Company to finance navigation improvements and jurisdictions. Washington served as its first president. The states assigned commissioners and set a date for a meeting in Alexandria, VA. Unfortunately, the Virginia delegation didn’t get the memo and weren’t prepared. George Washington happen to see one of the Maryland delegates in route and suggested they meet at Mt. Vernon instead as the two Virginia delegates, Madison and Henderson, lived nearby.
The negotiations continued as Washington hosted but did not participate. Both Maryland and Virginia approved the compact such that the Potomac “shall be considered as a common highway…” This would lead to the Annapolis convention (1786), and later to the Philadelphia convention of 1787.
August 1786, MA
Shays Rebellion began over heavy state taxes, cronyism, no credit, no monetary funds, unpaid War wages, and increasing farm bankruptcies. Debtor judges were blocked from entering court. Militia refused to answer the call. Wealthy state legislators were accused of profiteering over debtors. The states’ commitment to a stronger central national government increased.
The rebellion, and others like it, prompted George Washington to come out of retirement and agree to lead the Constitutional Convention the following year.
September 4, 1786, Annapolis, MD
The Annapolis Convention—10 days
Intended to be a “commercial convention” this convention’s call included trade, interstate commerce, and regulations, such that “when unanimously ratified; that will enable the United States in Congress effectively to provide for the same.” However, only five of thirteen states attended sending only twelve commissioners. This was supposed to be a continuing effort by the states to balance the lopsided federated relationship between states and the national government. The Articles of Confederation had allowed for independent and powerful ‘countries’ within the un-United States.
With the disappointing turnout, the delegates proposed in a circular letter to the states that they appoint commissioners to meet in Philadelphia on May 10, 1787. And to “take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union…”
“The word constitution in this context,” Professor Natelson says, “was not limited to the Articles of Confederation. The prevailing political definition of “constitution” at the time was political structure as a whole—much as we refer today to the British “constitution.” What we today call a “constitution” was more often called an “instrument,” “frame,” “system,” or “form” of government. The Annapolis statement was recommending a convention to consider and propose alterations in the federal political system, not merely to the Articles. Subsequent proceedings in Congress confirm that understanding.”
The Annapolis convention contemplated a convention that could do more than merely propose changes to the Article of Confederation.
November 23, 1786 Virginia General Assembly
James Madison and George Washington stayed in close contact in the fall of 1786. The House unanimously agreed to comply with the recommendation for a general revision of the Articles of Confederation. Madison drew up a bill “to give this subject a very solemn dress, and all the weight which could be derived from a single State.” He then nominated Washington to lead the delegation.
The resolution read, in part,
“…to assemble in Convention at Philadelphia as above recommended and to join with them in devising and discussing all such Alterations and farther Provisions as may be necessary to render the Foederal [sic] Constitution adequate to the Exigencies of the Union and in reporting such an Act for that purpose to the United States in Congress as when agreed to by them and duly confirmed by the several States…”
On the same day the New Jersey legislation also called for a convention and felt confident enough to select its commissioners.
May 25, 1787 to September 17, 1787, Philadelphia PA
The Constitutional Convention—4 months
The question today is, do we live in the republic instituted by the Constitution? Certainly, we’re in a technological and different time and society. But do we have the same liberties given us and our states as illustrated in our founding documents and as coming from our Creator? Or has a more intrusive and abusive government usurped our constitutional federal republic? Are ‘we the people’ respected by this government as the defining voice in American governance or not? Who decides?
The colonies, like the people, had individual identities and characteristics. And yet they, at the behest of the people, managed to convert themselves into states under a Union. They mostly did so with constitutions created in conventions during the Declaration period.
The people’s conventions began appearing early in our history (mostly unknown today) and revealed our core strengths. Originating conventions, like the English Magna Carta, came to take on an American flavor and distinction. From the Mayflower (1620), First & Second Continental Congress (1774 & ‘1775), Constitutional Convention (1787), to the BBA Rules Convention (2017), all were unique and yet they were the same.
Two of those conventions produced proposed amendments to the Constitution (Hartford CT (1814) & Washington DC Peace Conference (1861)) but, never made it to ratification.
Colonial and then state conventions were considered subservient to legislatures until the Founding Period. People and their states began to realize that legislative and constitutional drafting powers were actually two separate steps in the political process. Convention status rose in stature over politically ineffective legislatures “by the authority of the people only.”
Meeting at convention during the hot and humid summer of 1787, the Founders utilized the convention apparatus that had proven effective over the previous one hundred and eighty years to establish America as a constitutional federal republic. In writing the Constitution, the Founders presumed that state-conventions would continue to be used to amend the document. Only in the last days of the Convention was ‘Congress’ included in what would become Article V.
Bold and tenacious men searched for a way to enshrine the Declaration’s assertion that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Madison praised the Founders for “accomplish(ing) a revolution which had no parallel in the annals of human society.” And that they had “formed the design of a great Confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successor to improve and perpetuate.” (emphasis added)
Alexander Hamilton noted that even if such conventions were ‘illegal’, it would not matter, for “there are some events in society, to which human laws cannot extend.” (emphasis added)
The Constitution, including Article V, granted the states equal power with the national government under federalism. Since 1788, Congress has made nearly 12,000 amendment proposals. Of those attempts, 33 proposed amendments have made it to the states with only 27 being approved.
The states have recorded ‘calls’ to Congress 437 times for a convention. (Some have reached just under the 2/3 threshold requirement before collapsing under pressure from Congress)
Constitutional and convention scholars agree that state’s charters pose no limits on assembling a convention due to the higher authority “inherent in the people.”
Athenian thinking argued that sharing problems with each other leads to better solutions. The colonial/state conventions have a recorded history of over 400 years. The Founders understood the power that federalism gave the states and their citizens. They expected Article V to be used by either Congress or the states, as “their successor to improve and perpetuate” their known and “flawed” constitution.
It’s time to revisit the only legal and safe process granted to us by the Founders in the second clause of Article V to repair what ails our Nation.
 Rob Natelson, Founding-Era Conventions and the Meaning of the Constitution’s “Conventions for Proposeing Amendments”, Florida Law Review, Vol 65, No 3, 2013
 Michael Kapic, Conventions That Made America: A Brief History of Consensus Building, Author2Market, 2018, 8
 Timothy J. Dake, Far From Unworkable, Libertas Books, 2017, Appendix B,
 Paul Woodruff, First Democracy, Oxford University Press, 2005, 153, 156
 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, Continuum, 2003, 152, 158
 Ibid., Kapic
 Ibid., Kapic
 Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, Univ NC Press, 1998, 313
 Ibid., 317
 Ibid., Kapic, 59
 Ibid., Wood, 306, 308
 Russell Caplan, Constitutional Brinksmanship, Oxford Univ Press, 1988, 4,
 Ibid., 9
 Ibid., Kapic,
 Ibid., Caplan, 8
 Ibid., Caplan, 20
 Ibid., Kapic,
 Ibid., Caplan, 21,
 Ibid., Caplan,
 Ibid., Dake, 131, 132,
 Ibid., Caplan, 21,
 Ibid., Caplan, 21,
 Mount Vernon Conference, Mt. Vernon Library, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mount-vernon-conference
 Ibid., Caplan, 25,
 Ibid., Natelson, 671,
 VA Act Nov 23, 1786, U of Wisconsin-Madison, https://csac.history.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/281/2017/07/delegate_inst2.pdf
 James Madison, Journal of the Federal Convention, Vol 1, Vol 2, 1787
 Ebid., Caplan, xiv,
 Ibid., Kapic,