Mount Vernon Conference

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George Washington at Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon Conference was a meeting in 1785 to address disputes regarding navigation and naval jurisdiction along the Potomac River.[1] It was held at the home of George Washington, Mount Vernon.


When the War of Independence overthrew British sovereignty and the colonies became States, each was free to do as it chose in matters of commercial regulation, and discordant action caused troublesome complications. The situation was peculiarly annoying as regards Virginia and Maryland, as both were interested in the navigation of the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia complained that she was losing trade because of the lower rates of duty imposed by Maryland, while Maryland was in a state of alarm over Virginia's claim to the right to levy tolls upon vessels passing between the capes of the Chesapeake.

Gen. Washington was president of the Potomac Company, the predecessor of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and it was a matter of direct concern to the plans of that company that there should be an agreement between the two States in regard to the navigation of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay. In 1785 commissioners appointed by the two States were to meet at Alexandria. Gen. Washington invited them to his residence, Mount Vernon. There in his parlor was framed “the compact of 1785,” modification of which is the purpose of the negotiations now going on.

The matter immediately under consideration at Mount Vernon in 1785 was only one instance of the general need for a uniform system of commercial regulations, and that conference was the starting point of a movement to obtain such a system. A convention called in behalf of the movement met at Annapolis September II, 1786, and that convention issued the call for the convention which met at Philadelphia in May, 1787, and framed the Constitution of the United States. Gen. Washington presided, and thus had the satisfaction of seeing the triumphant conclusion of the movement started in his parlor in 1785.

At the Mount Vernon conference the commissioners on the part of Maryland were Daniel Jenifer, Thomas Stone, and Samuel Chase; on the part of Virginia, George Mason and Alexander Henderson. It has been frequently said that the Maryland commissioners were completely outgeneralled in the conference, but the spirit in which they met should be considered. They had more on their minds than the settlement of the questions immediately before them.

Moreover, it should be remembered that at that time Virginia had a controlling position from her possession of the capes of the Chesapeake. Maryland commerce could not reach the ocean save through Virginia waters. In those circumstances, and in view of the purposes of the Potomac Company, in whose success both States were interested, it is not surprising that the Maryland commissioners should have agreed that the Potomac should be a common highway, with the proviso that “the right of fishing in the river shall be common and equally enjoyed by the citizens of both States.”

The Maryland commissioners have been blamed for not insisting upon such equality of privilege on behalf of Maryland in Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds, which are traversed by the boundary line between the two States on the eastern shore. This is said to have been a negligence. Virginia was alert on the point, and the Virginia act of 1785, passed in pursuance of the compact, forbids citizens of Maryland from taking oysters in Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds. The conference was not, however, a boundary line negotiation, but its object was a commercial treaty to secure freedom of navigation. The Federal Constitution a few years later made a clean sweep of difficulties in this field, but at the time the conference met it was the paramount subject of interest, to which all other matters were subordinated.[2]


When the long dispute between Maryland and Virginia over the boundary line was settled in 1877 by the award of an arbitration commission, it was decided that the dividing line between the two States is at low-water mark on the southern shore.

Thus the Potomac River throughout its entire length between Virginia and Maryland belongs wholly to Maryland, and yet Maryland is restrained by the compact of 1785 from legislating in regard to fishing rights in the Potomac except by the consent of Virginia, as otherwise the law is practically void.[2]

The result of the Mount Vernon Conference was the Mount Vernon Compact. As a result of the compact, the negotiators agreed on tolls, navigation rights, port duties, fishing practices, and lighthouses.[3]

The Mount Vernon Conference led directly to the Annapolis Convention and ultimately, the Constitutional Convention.[4]


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