The Little-Known – but Seminal – York Town Convention of 1777


The U.S. Constitution authorizes a “convention for proposing amendments” to offer amendments for ratification (or rejection) by the states.

The mechanism has never been used (all amendments have come from Congress), and many people have been curious about how it is supposed to work. But that’s because they are unaware of the long series of interstate “proposing” conventions held during the Founding Era—each charged with suggesting answers to specified problems.

All of these conventions were meetings of state delegations (“committees”) appointed and empowered by their respective states. In addition to the famed 1787 gathering in Philadelphia, interstate conventions met in Providence, Rhode Island (1776-77 and again in 1781); Springfield, Massachusetts (1777); New Haven, Connecticut (1778); Hartford, Connecticut (1779 and 1780); Philadelphia (1780); Boston (1780); and Annapolis, Maryland (1786). It is possible that others met in Charleston in 1777 and/or 1778 and in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1778. Attendance ranged from three states to twelve.

The protocol of those assemblies can tell us much about the Founders’ expectations for the “convention to propose amendments.” The problem is that, except for the Annapolis and 1787 Philadelphia meetings, records covering them can be hard to find. I’ve learned that even experienced archivists can have trouble locating them.


On General Welfare

In response to my recent essay, “The Tenth Amendment Prohibited the Living Constitution“, I received an e-mail which informed me that, ” the Constitution … gives Congress the power to make all laws necessary to execute its powers, including the power to provide for the general welfare, which has to include public health and safety.”

This is definitely a very common understanding, but is it correct?  Does the congress have the power to make all laws necessary to execute its powers, including the power to provide for the general welfare?

Let’s start with Article 1, Section 8, clause 1 of the US Constitution, which says,

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

In modern English, the first phrase in that clause might be paraphrased in one of two ways.  First, by distributing the word power across each of the following phrases…

1.) The congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, etc…, the power to pay the debts, the power to provide for the common defense, and the power to provide for the general welfare….

Four powers all bundled into one clause.  Or second, by inserting the clarifying text, “in order”…