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How a ‘Convention of States’ Could Tweak the Constitution

September 11, 2017

Representatives of state legislatures from across the nation will converge in Phoenix, Arizona on Sept. 12 to participate in a traditional American institution called a “convention of states.” 

Representatives of state legislatures from across the nation will converge in Phoenix, Arizona on Sept. 12 to participate in a traditional American institution called a “convention of states.”

Conventions of states are valuable. They help ensure Washington, DC doesn’t dictate all decisions on every subject.

The purpose of the meeting in Phoenix is to plan for another, even more important convention — one to propose adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The latter event is likely within the next two to three years.

Most people know the U.S. Constitution was drafted at a convention of states held in 1787. What few know is that there have been many other conventions of states. They and their colonial predecessors have met periodically for more than 300 years.

Apologists for unlimited federal power have done a good job of suppressing public awareness of that fact. They often claim or imply interstate meetings are “constitutional conventions” and that they are largely unprecedented, but the truth is dramatically different.

The Article V Information Center I run recently posted a list of prior conventions of states. The list shows there have been 38 fully verified assemblies of this kind and another five for which the Center has partial information — seven of which happened since 1787.

Not every interstate conclave qualifies as a convention of states. A true convention of states is a temporary task force where commissioners from three or more states consider possible solutions to problems on the agenda. They are essentially diplomatic meetings among sovereignties and, historically, have followed well-established procedures and protocols. For example, each state generally has one vote, and a formal recommendation requires approval by a majority of states present and voting.

Most interstate conventions have been regional affairs, involving just a handful of participants. But at least seven have been “general conventions” — that is, meetings in which states from all over the country take part. The Phoenix gathering will be a general convention.

The first conclave of this kind occurred in 1677, when several colonies convened in Albany, New York to negotiate a treaty with Indian tribes.

Later conventions negotiated additional Indian treaties. They also planned defense against hostile tribes and French Canada. A 1754 convention negotiated a treaty and recommended a plan by Benjamin Franklin to unify the colonies.

When tensions with Great Britain arose, the 1765 Stamp Act Congress and the 1774 First Continental Congress — both formal conventions of colonies — coordinated America’s response.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence converted the colonies into states, and those states continued to meet in convention. Their conventions addressed problems the Continental Congress could not solve. For example, a general convention met in Philadelphia in 1780 to propose a solution to rampant wartime price inflation.

Conventions of states continued into the 19th and 20th centuries. Not all these gatherings were successful. The 1780 convention broke up without proposing anything. The assemblies in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 and Washington, DC in 1861 recommended constitutional amendments, but their proposals went nowhere.

On the other hand, some conventions produced great things. The 1744 conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania negotiated a significant Indian treaty. The 1786 Annapolis Convention proposed the outstandingly successful Constitutional Convention. Recommendations from the 1889 St. Louis Convention led to passage of state and federal anti-trust laws. A 1922 convention (called the Colorado River Commission) negotiated the Colorado River Compact. During the 1940s, an interstate convention allocated water in the Upper Colorado River.

James Madison pointed out that under our Constitution the states have crucial responsibilities in national governance. Conventions help the states meet those responsibilities. That’s what we’ll see in Phoenix.

[Originally Published at the Hill]

Article Tags
Constitutional Reform
Author
Robert G. “Rob” Natelson is widely acknowledged to be the country’s leading scholar on the Constitution's amendment procedure, and among the leaders on several other topics.
media@heartland.org

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