The Constitutional Convention
The history of the United States changed over the course of 4 months in the summer of 1787 as 55 delegates met to write the Constitution as we know it.
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After the Revolutionary War ended, George Washington was finally able to resume the life he had missed while leading the continental army to victory over the British. Once back at Mount Vernon, Washington was ready to focus on his personal life. However, a trip west that began as a business venture would give birth to an event that changed American history.
Like many others, Washington found himself in financial trouble since the fighting ended, with a plantation that suffered from lack of production and rent from western lands left uncollected. With all of this activity waiting for him when he came home, Washington had little interest in participating in politics. He just wanted to focus on farming and getting his business back on its feet. After almost 8 months spent tending to his affairs at home, Washington planned a trip to inspect lands he owned in the west, but had not been able to visit since a 1770 trip before the war.
Washington traveled by horseback along a familiar route that followed the Potomac River west to Cumberland, Maryland. There he joined Braddock’s Road, the pathway he helped to construct during the French and Indian War, in order to reach Western Pennsylvania. During his trip, Washington realized that travel in this area had improved little since his initial journey to the region in in 1753, and that Potomac River navigation would be necessary to improve trade between the east coast and the lands in the west. This posed an opportunity for Washington to develop a shipping business. In turn, by developing this trade route, it would improve business within the country and hopefully create a stronger union from a financial and political standpoint. Establishing this trade would require states to work together for the business to be successful.
In order to begin the process of linking the Potomac River to the Ohio River valley and the west, Washington was in support of the creation of a limited liability company chartered by both Virginia and Maryland. Authorized by the Virginia and Maryland assemblies in January of 1785, the Patowmack (or Potomac) Company would serve this purpose and finance navigational improvements meant to push the Potomac route westward to the Shenandoah and Ohio Valleys and open up commerce into those regions.
In the spring of 1785, commissioners from Maryland and Virginia began to think about a variety of issues that increased interstate commerce along the Potomac River might bring about. On March 28, 1785, at George Washington’s request, representatives from Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon to discuss navigational rights on the Potomac River. This meeting is now known as the Mount Vernon Conference. The commissioners in attendance agreed on a 13-point document that would become known as the Mount Vernon Compact, which set a precedent for interstate cooperation on navigation, toll duties, commerce regulations, debt collection, and fishing rights.
Following the success at Mount Vernon, which demonstrated that two states could work together despite the tough political atmosphere that existed at the time, James Madison pushed for another convention to discuss interstate commerce with representatives from all of the states. The conference was to be held the following year in Annapolis, Maryland, and would aim to dissolve trade obstructions that existed between states and prevented economic growth. Unfortunately, representatives from only five states attended the Annapolis Convention. Due to lack of participation, the delegates in attendance agreed to meet the following year, in Philadelphia, PA, 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.”
Although it was intended to improve his personal finances, George Washington’s 1784 trip to the west unintentionally led him back to a life of public service and ultimately leading to his involvement with the creation of the United States Constitution during the summer of 1787.
Richard M. Ketchum. The World of George Washington. (New York, American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.)