The US government suffered from various deficiencies prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
All of them stemmed from the limited authority of its governing body, the Confederation Congress. For one thing, the Confederation Congress didn’t have the authority to raise taxes. This actually meant that the USA couldn’t afford to have a proper military, with each state instead having its own separate armies. Similarly, this also meant that the USA couldn’t raise the funds to repay its debts from the American Revolution.
The US government also lacked executive or judicial branches, meaning it couldn’t enforce the few laws that the Confederation Congress could pass. Another flaw in the US government at the time included its inability to regulate both domestic and foreign commerce. In short, the USA at the time could only call itself united on paper when in reality the states simply had a loose alliance with each other.
James Madison drafted the Virginia Plan in May 1787.
A member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, Madison also served in the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. Even before the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he rightly saw America’s problems at the time as the result of its lack of effective government. To that end, he saw the convention as a way to organize a proper central government that would truly unite the USA and give it the leadership it needed.
Ironically, Madison drafted the Virginia Plan during the convention itself, while waiting for other delegates to arrive. This delay resulted from the limited transportation available in the 18th century. Madison consulted with his fellow delegates from Virginia, as well as their colleagues from Pennsylvania, for insights to help him draft the Virginia Plan.
Madison worried about the “tyranny of the majority” while drafting the Virginia Plan.
This referred to how a dominant majority in both society and government can prioritize their interests at the expense of the various minorities. Madison correctly saw how despite democracy best looked out for the interests of the people, it could also produce its own form of tyranny.
To that end, he drafted the Virginia Plan with the goal of building a neutral government. A neutral government would have representatives from every interest group, ranging from the rich to the poor, landowners and businessmen, as well as farmers and factory owners, among others. Madison also saw how one or another interest group could easily dominate state governments, thanks to their smaller size.
In contrast, the much larger federal government would prove more difficult to control. To that end, the Virginia Plan pushed to grand the US Congress veto power over state legislatures.
Edmund Randolph also strongly supported the Virginia Plan.
Like Madison, Randolph had previously represented Virginia in the Continental Congress, but only after the American Revolution. He also later represented Virginia in the Annapolis Convention of 1786. In that same year, he became Governor of Virginia, before joining Madison at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
Randolph shared Madison’s opinions on the US government’s problems at the time and supported his position out of a similarly-shared belief in republican values. Although Madison had drafted the Virginia Plan, he allowed Randolph to present it to the convention. In this way, Madison could avoid giving the impression of showboating. Madison and Randolph’s shared origins from Virginia, as well as their support for the plan, became the origin of the plan’s name.
Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 helped convince Randolph to support the Virginia Plan.
The rebellion takes its name from its leader, Daniel Shays. It erupted over the harsh policies of Massachusetts Governor James Bowdoin, who summarily dismissed court petitions for tax relief. Tensions were already high because of farmers and veterans losing land as a result of their inability to pay taxes, which is the result of a widespread coin shortage.
With the federal government lacking its own military, the governor called on the county militias, which supported the rebels. The governor then turned to the private sector, with rich merchants and bankers funding a new state militia to crush the rebels. This spectacle which saw a state government turn to mercenaries to enforce the law became a major piece of evidence for a stronger federal government.
The Virginia Plan called for a separation of powers in the new US government.
According to the plan, the US Congress would appoint the US President, who would have the authority to enforce its laws. The President would also have the authority to conduct negotiations with foreign countries, as well as to declare war and peace.
The Virginia Plan also called for the formation of a judicial branch, composed of a supreme tribunal and multiple inferior tribunals. Much like the US President, the US Congress would appoint the tribunal’s judges. The judges and the President would also form a Council of Revision which could veto state and federal laws. However, the US Congress could similarly vote to overrule the council’s veto.
It also called for a bicameral congress.
At the time, the USA had a unicameral legislature, with a single house making up the Confederation Congress. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral congress, composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Despite its similarities to the British Parliament with its Houses of Lords and Commons, the proposal enjoyed unanimous support. This resulted from how every state, aside from Pennsylvania, already having bicameral legislatures of its own.
The debate instead arose over membership in either house of congress. Some delegates, such as Elbridge Gerry and Roger Sherman opposed the popular election of members of the House of Representatives. They feared demagogues could easily sway the public, thus influencing the House of Representatives, and resulting in mob rule or even anarchy. Despite the opposition, most delegates voted to make popular election the means of membership in the House of Representatives.
In contrast, the debate over the Senate had an inverse situation. Most delegates wanted to have the state governments appoint senators instead of letting them get elected. They saw this as a way to protect the interests of individual states from federal overreach. That said, all the delegates agreed to make the Senate smaller and more exclusive than the House of Representatives. This would reflect its nature as a check on any excesses or overreach by the House of Representatives.
It also included what would become the Good Behavior Clause of the US Constitution.
This has become applied in various ways today. First of all, all federal judges serve for life. They only leave office when they either resign, die, or suffer impeachment. They may also find themselves removed from office if proven beyond reasonable doubt that they can no longer properly perform their duties. This can result from various factors, such as old age, disease, or even corruption.
A special committee composed of a circuit’s chief judge along with equal numbers of circuit and district judges investigates any questions about any one of their colleagues’ good behavior. They submit their findings to the Judicial Council, which then acts on them. That said, only specific judges find themselves covered by the US Constitution’s Good Behavior Clause. These include the justices of the Supreme Court, circuit and district judges, as well as the judges of the Court of International Trade.
The procedures for the admission of new states to the Union also go back to the Virginia Plan.
The US government had actually considered admitting new states to the Union even before the Constitutional Convention of 1787. However, no procedures for admitting new states into the Union had managed to pass the Confederation Congress. This resulted from competing state interests. One example is Vermont’s push for statehood, which was blocked by land claims from New York State.
The Virginia Plan proposed to correct this by simply proposing that all prospective states meet the same criteria as the original 13 states for entry into the Union. This led to opposition from many delegates who feared the damage to their states’ interests. That said, they agreed to compromise, allowing new states to enter the Union so long as both the US Congress and all preexisting states gave their consent.
The Virginia Plan was met with mixed reception from the delegates.
Larger states like Virginia and Pennsylvania supported the Virginia Plan, while smaller states like Connecticut and Delaware opposed it. The opposing delegates criticized the Virginia Plan as favoring larger states at the expense of smaller states. In particular, they pointed out how the larger populations of larger states would simply outvote their own smaller populations.
They especially pointed to the popularly-elected House of Representatives, which would have proportional representation under the Virginia Plan. This meant that larger states would actually have more representatives and thus votes than smaller states would have. Some delegates even threatened to walk out of the convention if their concerns went unheard.
The Virginia Plan’s proposed government also lacked checks and balances.
Checks and balances refer to how each branch of a government automatically limits each other. This principle predates the American Revolution, going back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. It works to keep any government from abusing its power by ensuring that no sector of the government has more authority than the others.
However, the Virginia Plan’s proposed government lacked this principle, making it vulnerable to tyranny. This stemmed from how all executive and judicial officials could only take office via appointment by the US Congress. For this reason, the US Constitution only gave the US Congress authority to confirm appointees into office. Instead, the US President would appoint the members of the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. The US President would also get directly elected by the people.
It also originally called for a weak executive.
This wasn’t actually seen as a problem by many delegates, given their recent experiences in the American Revolution. They feared that the leader of the USA becoming too powerful could result in tyranny, with one man crowning himself as king. They even had historical precedent for this, as shown by how Julius Caesar and then Augustus turned the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. For that reason, the Virginia Plan originally proposed the US President serve via appointment by Congress.
However, Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson opposed this, arguing this would make Congress too powerful instead, as part of the previously-mentioned lack of checks and balances. To that end, he proposed that the people should directly elect the US President instead.
Wilson’s opponents, though, protested that direct election could get taken advantage of by demagogues. This eventually led to what would become the Electoral College, wherein state electors would certify the votes for presidential candidates in each state. Each state has a fixed number of electors, with the electors deciding which candidate the state had overall voted for. The US President would thus not hold office by popular vote, but by the majority of states instead.
William Paterson drafted the New Jersey Plan.
The New Jersey Plan was named after Paterson’s home state. It received support from the delegations of the smaller states, once again over the proportional nature of seats in the House of Representatives. With their smaller populations, this meant they would have fewer seats than larger states would. This, in turn, would lead their states to have less of a say in any future government.
The New Jersey Plan primarily proposed to retain the Confederation Congress, which gave equal numbers of seats to each state. The Confederation Congress would instead have its powers expanded, such as those proposed by the Virginia Plan. Like the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan also proposed that the US President hold office via congressional appointment. It also proposed the formation of a Supreme Tribunal. However, the US President would appoint its members instead of Congress.
The New Jersey Plan introduced what would become the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution.
As its name indicates, the Supremacy Clause declared the US Constitution as the highest law in the land. This meant that no law could ever contradict any part of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court reserved the authority to review any laws passed by Congress and signed by the US President to see if they stayed within the limits of the US Constitution. Only laws that passed this review could come into effect. The New Jersey Plan originally applied this clause to the Articles of Confederation. However, the Constitutional Convention instead amended it and added it to the US Constitution.
It also included what would become the Three-Fifths Compromise.
This referred to the policy of counting only 60% of all slaves in a state as part of its total population. The New Jersey Plan originally pushed the compromise as part of any considerations toward the collection of taxes.
Later, southern delegates attempted to use it to increase the number of seats they had in the House of Representatives. They even tried to include not just 60% of all slaves, but all slaves, as part of any calculation towards the number of seats.
This angered many northern delegates, which historians see as a foreshadowing of the eventual north-south divide of the US Civil War. James Wilson, in particular, remarked that if slaves counted when deciding representation in the House of Representatives, the government might as well emancipate the slaves and give them full citizenship. The Three-Fifths Compromise was eventually abolished at the end of the American Civil War, with the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that banned slavery in the USA.
The New Jersey Plan also called for a single policy on the naturalization of citizens.
Originally, the USA did not have a standardized procedure for foreign citizens to become US citizens. Instead, each state at the time had its own policies when it came to granting citizenship. A citizen of any one of the US states would then automatically count as a US citizen. The New Jersey Plan recognized the flaws of this system and called for a solution.
That said, it did not actually propose any solution, only that the Confederation Congress should receive a mandate to find a solution. The Constitutional Convention ultimately accepted this part of the New Jersey Plan, with the US Constitution authorizing the new US Congress to pass a nationalization law. This became reality in 1790, with the Nationalization Act.
Historians think the New Jersey Plan’s supporters predicted its failure.
Historians see the New Jersey Plan as a way for its supporters to publicly air their grievances over the direction the Constitutional Convention had proceeded. This, in turn, led the other delegates to at least consider and debate their colleagues’ positions in the interests of unity. The supporters of the New Jersey Plan followed this up by pushing for a compromise between their plan and the Virginia Plan.
This would take the form of the Connecticut Compromise which shaped the future US Congress. As per the Virginia Plan, Congress would have a bicameral organization. Seats in the House of Representatives would also remain proportional to each state’s population. However, the states would each have equal representation in the Senate, with two senators from every state.
Alexander Hamilton tried to propose an alternative to both the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan.
Hamilton’s proposal involved basing the US Congress on the British Parliament, only with elected members. The lower house, called the Assembly, would have members serving three-year terms. In contrast, the upper house, called the Senate, would have members serving for life. Senators would also not get elected directly by the public, instead, they would elect electors who would appoint senators.
The electors would also appoint a Governor as the national executive, who would also serve for life. Hamilton also proposed the abolition of individual states or their reorganization into smaller political units.
Hamilton’s proposal was rejected by the rest of the Constitutional Convention. He was also hounded by accusations of secret monarchists and even pro-British sympathies for the rest of his life. That said, historians theorize that Hamilton deliberately provoked his fellow delegates. He did so to show a contrast with the Virginia Plan and make it appear a more acceptable proposal against other alternatives.
Ironically, both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans included proposals for the impeachment process.
Even more ironic, impeachment originated from the British government, and thus something that veterans of the American Revolution would oppose. That said, they saw it as a logical and lawful way to remove corrupt or otherwise deficient public officials from office. Both the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan proposed investing the legislature with the authority to impeach government officials.
The US Constitution adopted this proposal and solely invested the US Congress with impeachment authority. In fact, the US Constitution even explicitly limits the President’s authority to give pardons. Specifically, even the US President cannot pardon an official impeached and thus stripped of office by the US Congress. Similarly, the US Supreme Court has no authority to review an impeachment case by the US Congress.
The Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan were featured in the 1989 film A More Perfect Union.
Directed by Peter N. Johnson, Brigham Young University produced the film to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the US Constitution. Stars in the film include Craig Wasson who played James Madison, Michael McGuire who played George Washington, and Fred Wayne who played Benjamin Franklin.
The film begins at the end of the American Revolution and details the events leading up to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It also details the debates between the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan, as well as the role and future of slavery in the USA. The film closes with the delegates compromising their positions. This then leads to the drafting and signing of the US Constitution.