Commentary

Convention of States: Ignorance of Our History May Be Our Ruin

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By Ken Quinn, Coalitions Director for the Convention of States Project in Maine – We, as citizens of the United States, have become quite ignorant of our own history. This ignorance often prevents us from seeing history being repeated and from making necessary course corrections to prevent calamity from striking. A meeting between states to solve problems is one of those historical practices that we have long forgotten about. Today when we hear the term “convention of states” we immediately think that it is some radical idea that has happened only one time in our history in 1787. Revisiting American history may just help us resolve current political challenges facing the country.

Truth be told, our nation has a long and rich history of conventions of states meeting to work out differences and resolve their issues. As I have stated in a previous article, the Constitutional Convention was a convention of states that met in response to the act from the Annapolis Convention of September, 1786 for an express purpose: “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 Annapolis Convention was a convention of states called for the purpose of taking “into consideration the Trade and Commerce of the United States, to consider how far an uniform system in their commercial intercourse and regulations might be necessary to their common interest and permanent harmony.” However, due to only five states attending they were unable to conduct business and therefore recommended another convention to meet in Philadelphia in May the following year.

The Framers of the Constitution were very familiar with these types of conventions because many of them had attended such conventions themselves in the past. In fact several of them were delegates at the Annapolis Convention. In attendance at the 1786 Annapolis Convention were the following 1787 Constitutional Convention delegates: Alexander Hamilton, George Read, John Dickinson, Richard Bassett, Edmund Randolph and James Madison. A convention to address pressing concerns between states was a process our Founders were very familiar with and routinely called. In his article, Founding-Era Conventions and the Meaning of the Constitution’s “Convention for Proposing Amendments,” constitutional scholar Rob Natelson has done an excellent job in identifying 32 such conventions that met prior to 1787:

“What nearly all commentators have overlooked is that the Framers did not write, nor did the Ratifiers adopt, Article V on a blank slate. They wrote and ratified against the background of a long tradition of multi-colony and multi-state conventions. During the century before the drafting of Article V, there had been at least 32 such gatherings—at least 21 before Independence and another eleven between 1776 and 1786. In addition, there had been several abortive, although still instructive, convention calls. These multi-government gatherings were the direct predecessors of the convention for proposing amendments, and formed the model upon which the convention for proposing amendments was based.
Universally-accepted protocols determined multi-government convention procedures. These protocols fixed the acceptable ways of calling such conventions, selecting and instructing delegates, adopting convention rules, and conducting convention proceedings. The actors involved in the process—state legislatures and executives, the Continental and Confederation Congresses, and the delegates themselves—each had recognized prerogatives and duties, and were subject to recognized limits.
These customs are of more than mere Founding-Era historical interest. They governed, for the most part, multi-state conventions held in the nineteenth century as well—notably but not exclusively, the Washington Conference Convention of 1861. More importantly for present purposes, they shaped the Founders’ understanding of how the constitutional language would be interpreted and applied.
Moreover, the Constitution, as a legal document, must be understood in the context of the jurisprudence of the time. In that jurisprudence, custom was a key definer of the “incidents” or attributes that accompanied principal (i.e., express) legal concepts and powers. Thus, the customs by which the founding generation initiated and conducted interstate conventions tell us how an Article V convention should be initiated and conducted; further, they help define the powers and prerogatives of the actors in the process. But beyond that, there is considerable affirmative evidence that the Founders specifically understood these customs to define the language of Article V.”

The Washington Conference Convention of 1861 (“It’s Been Done Before: A Convention of the States to Propose Constitutional Amendments”) which Natelson references above was the closest we have come to an actual Article V convention for proposing amendments. Other than a few minor exceptions it was a dry run of how a convention for proposing amendments would work today.

That convention was held and proposed amendments to allow slave states to remain as they were in order to prevent the Civil War. Unfortunately the convention was too little too late and Congress did not take the necessary action to submit the proposed amendments to the states for ratification. Had the states applied for an Article V convention properly and Congress acted upon the outcome of the convention promptly they may have prevented the Civil War and saved over 600,000 American lives.

At the beginning of this article, I stated how ignorance of our history can lead to tragic consequences.  Today we see the handwriting on the wall as our nation spirals downward into financial ruin. Most of the people we trusted and elected to represent us in Washington DC have betrayed us. They continue to ignore the warning signs and continue to disregard the rule of law as found in our Constitution. We are at a moment in our nation’s history that we must take bold and decisive action. The Framers of the Constitution knew this day would eventually come and that is exactly why they gave the states recourse against a runaway Congress with a convention for proposing amendments.

Only by limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government (see Convention of States Project Application) will we be able to restore the balance of power back to the states. May we learn from history and not repeat the mistakes of the past by not taking the necessary steps to prevent our nation from this looming disaster. The Founders provided us the tool within Article V for such an hour as this. Are we going to be bold and do what is right or are we going to let fear prevent us from keeping our Republic? We know what we must do and it is time we do it! 

About Ken Quinn

Ken Quinn is the State Director for the Convention of States Project in Maine. This column is part of a series that will explore the Convention of States. For more information or to volunteer, please visit www.conventionofstates.com.

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