Mount Vernon Conference

The Mount Vernon Conference was a meeting of delegates from Virginia and Maryland held March 21–28, 1785, to discuss navigational rights in the states' common waterways. On March 28, 1785, the group drew up a thirteen-point proposal to govern the two states' rights on the Potomac River, Pocomoke River, and Chesapeake Bay.[1] Known as the Mount Vernon Compact,[2] formally titled as the Compact of 1785,[3][4] this agreement not only covered tidewater navigation but also extended to issues such as toll duties, commerce regulations, fishing rights, and debt collection. Ratified by the legislature of both states, the compact helped set a precedent for later meetings between states for discussions into areas of mutual concern.[1]

George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, Fairfax County, Virginia

The conference, initially scheduled to begin March 21, 1785 in Alexandria, Virginia, was a meeting of delegates from Maryland: Samuel Chase, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer, and Thomas Stone, and Virginia: Alexander Henderson and George Mason, along with James Madison and Edmund Randolph who did not attend, as Virginia Governor Patrick Henry neglected to notify the state's representatives of their appointments in a timely manner. None of Virginia's delegates were present when Maryland's arrived for the meeting.[1] George Washington, who had been corresponding with Thomas Stone about the conference,[5] offered them the hospitality of his Mount Vernon estate in Fairfax County, Virginia, while they waited, and then offered to host the gathering itself. Although not an official participant, Washington—with his authoritative knowledge of the issues and active interest in Potomac navigation—inspired the delegates and lent considerable prestige to the proceedings.[1]

The conference reconvened at Mount Vernon on March 21, 1785 with Washington presiding. Maryland's representatives were empowered to discuss with Virginia shared concerns involving the Potomac and Pocomoke Rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. To the contrary, the Virginia legislature's instructions to its appointees focused solely on the Potomac. Nonetheless, common ground was found and on March 28, 1785, a final report was prepared for the two state legislatures. The report contained 13 clauses and was ratified by both Maryland and Virginia. It declared the Potomac, which was under Maryland's sole jurisdiction, to be a common waterway for use by Virginia as well. It also provided for reciprocal fishing rights, dividing the costs of constructing navigation aids, cooperation on defense and cases of piracy. It also called for commissioners to deal with any future problems that might arise. Political leaders in Pennsylvania and Delaware were invited to join the agreement as well.

View of the Potomac from Mount Vernon, Fairfax County, Virginia, toward the Maryland shore

The circumstances that led to the conference began as the country emerged victorious from the Revolutionary War. Lacking an effective central government under the Articles of Confederation, the states quarreled among themselves and some even established proprietary regulations, tariffs, and currency. To ensure mutually profitable commerce on their shared waterways, the Virginia and Maryland legislatures recognized the need for an agreement between the two states regarding the jurisdiction of the waters. This awareness led to the chartering (in Maryland-1784 and in Virginia-1785) of the Potomac Company to make improvements to the Potomac River and improve its navigability beyond its fall line for commerce. The company's goal was the linking of the East Coast with the trans-Appalachian northwest.[6]

The Mount Vernon Conference became a model of interstate cooperation outside the framework of the Articles of Confederation.[1] Its success encouraged James Madison to advocate for further discussions on constitutional issues facing the states. He had little to show for efforts to get Virginia's delegates in the Continental Congress to seek expanded powers to deal with trade issues. Instead, he introduced a proposal in the Virginia General Assembly to act on the suggestion of the Compact commissioners for further debate of interstate issues. With Maryland's agreement, on January 21, 1786, Virginia invited all the states to attend another meeting on commercial issues, the ground-breaking Annapolis Convention.

This second interstate political convention, formally titled "A Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government", convened at George Mann's Tavern[7] in Annapolis, Maryland on September 11, 1786,. Delegates from five states (appointed delegates from four others either arrived too late to participate or otherwise did not attend) gathered to discuss ways to facilitate commerce between the states and establish standard rules and regulations. As a result of the gathering, commissioners called for there to be another constitutional convention at which possible improvements to the Articles could be discussed. The desired convention took place in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

The meetings at Annapolis and Mount Vernon together paved the way for the Philadelphia convention, which further strengthened the concept of interstate cooperation and resulted in a new federal Constitution. There, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania made oblique reference to the success of the Mount Vernon Conference. In 1908, a government commission would associate these related events more closely.[8]

The earliest movement toward developing the inland waterways of the country began when, under the influence of George Washington, Virginia and Maryland appointed commissioners primarily to consider the navigation and improvement of the Potomac; they met in 1785 in Alexandria and adjourned to Mount Vernon, where they planned for extension, pursuant to which they reassembled with representatives of other States in Annapolis in 1786; again finding the task a growing one, a further conference was arranged in Philadelphia in 1787, with delegates from all the States. There the deliberations resulted in the framing of the Constitution, whereby the thirteen original States were united primarily on a commercial basis — the commerce of the times being chiefly by water.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Mount Vernon Conference". George Washington's Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  2. Robert K. Wright, Jr. and Morris J. MacGregor, Jr., Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution Washington, DC: United States Army Center of Military History 1987
  3. General Assembly of Maryland, 1786 Md. Laws c. 1,
  4. U.S. Supreme Court, WHARTON v. WISE, 153 U.S. 155 (1894)
  5. "To George Washington from Thomas Stone, 28 January 1785". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved October 7, 2015.
  6. Preliminary report of the Inland Waterways Commission, February 26, 1908
  7. Wright, Jr., Robert K.; MacGregor Jr., Morris J. "Appendix A: The Annapolis Convention". Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution. Washington D.C: United States Army Center of Military History. p. 264. LCCN 87001353. CMH Pub 71-25.
  8. Preliminary Report of the Inland Waterways Commission, 1908. Introductory note to Section 17, The Gallatin Report
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