Philadelphia—The bold Virginia Plan remains the center of debate this week at the federal convention. After addressing questions of the power of the national government, the delegates find themselves circling back to various questions of the form and structure the new government will take.
Small or Extended Republic?
Within the context of determining the place of states in the new system of government, June 7 saw debate on the nature of republics and which form—small or extended—led to greater happiness. Having studied the dismal histories of ancient republics, James Madison was convinced that an extended republic would best balance order and liberty. While Roger Sherman of Connecticut asserted that small republics, where government was closer to the people, led to greater happiness, Madison countered that extended republics prevented factions from combining to oppress minorities. Madison would later address these points in Federalist 10.
A veto over state laws?
James Madison and Charles Pinckney, perhaps giving more ammunition to those who would accuse some delegates of a covert plan to create a consolidated national government, proposed giving Congress a “negative” or veto power over state laws. This proposal was voted down, handing Madison – who had seen this power as a republican remedy for the republican danger of majority tyranny – a frustrating defeat.
Madison was also about to see another key feature of the Virginia Plan challenged – its proposal that representation in both houses of the national legislature be apportioned by size. Roger Sherman, representing the small state of Connecticut, proposed that one house should be made up of representatives based on a state’s population of “free inhabitants” with all states having equal representation in the second house, “otherwise a few large States will rule the rest.” The delegates were touching on sensitive issues. Apparently to avoid an impasse between large and small states, James Wilson and Rufus King made the simple motion that we not apportion representatives like we did under the Articles – with states represented equally – but according to “some equitable ratio”.
In addition, the great Dr. Franklin chose this as one of the few times during which he would lend the weight of his reputation to keepingthe Convention moving forward. Having prepared remarks that were read by Mr. Wilson, Franklin praised the delegates, noting that prior to this conversation on representation, “our debates were carried on with great coolness & temper.” Yet he warned those who had not engaged in such a collegial way that he hoped such outbursts would “not be repeated; for we are sent here to consult, not to contend, with each other….”
The delegates agreed to the proposal offered by Mr. Wilson and Mr. King, but this did not settle the issue and debate over the form of the legislature continued. Despite Franklin’s attempt to diffuse the situation, the delegates could not settle on equitable ratio of representation.
The 3/5ths Clause
The issue of representation continued to plague the delegates, complicated as it was by the practice of chattel slavery. Greater populations would mean more power in Congress, and slave states wanted to be able to count their slave populations for purposes of representation. Slaves, of course, were considered property. Elbridge Gerry, taking issue with the Southern state’s desire to count slaves towards their populations, asked provocatively, “Why then should the blacks, who [are] property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the Cattle & horses of the North?” Still the delegations agreed (9-2) to the 3/5ths compromise. Roger Sherman then threw down the gauntlet, saying the small states would “never agree to the plan on any other principle than an equality of suffrage.” He was outvoted, 6-5.
It was eventually agreed, for the sake of preserving a chance at union among the states, that slave holding states would be permitted to count three-fifths of their slave populations towards representation in Congress. The three-fifths clause today is often referred to as counting enslaved persons as “3/5ths of a person.” No such characterization was made at the convention.
Most of the questions addressed this week—and throughout the summer—naturally had to do with the source of government power. Should consent of the governed come from the people, as James Wilson seemed to advocate? Or from the states (and thereby only indirectly from the people of those states) as advocated by the friends of the former Confederacy such as George Mason or Roger Sherman?
The delegates concluded by agreeing to vote on Amended Virginia Plan with 19 Resolutions. But the delegates from New Jersey had a plan up their sleeve.
For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.
Posted in Countdown to the Constitution