Philadelphia – Debates over the Virginia Plan have inundated the Convention for weeks, but several delegates from the smaller states are concerned about the scope of the plan. It would completely eliminate the Articles of Confederation and put in its place a stronger national government. Wasn’t the Revolution fought to rid Americans of a tyrannical and over-powerful national government? If the Virginia Plan passes, would the smaller states lose their voice in the national theater to those larger states with greater population and therefore greater representation? On Thursday, June 14, 1787, William Paterson of New Jersey begs his fellow delegates to allow for further contemplation and the opportunity to develop an alternate option.
The New Jersey Plan
On June 15, the New Jersey Plan is collectively proposed by the delegations of New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Delaware. It is decided that the alternate plan will not go before the Committee of the Whole until the following day to allow the delegates to “be better prepared to explain & support it.”
The New Jersey Plan lays out 11 resolutions. The first resolution resolves that the Articles of Confederation should be revised in order to allow the federal government greater authority. Another resolution includes rejecting the idea of a bicameral legislature as described in the Virginia Plan and restores the single chamber structure used under the Articles.
Strengthening the Articles, the New Jersey Plan expands the powers of the Congress to include taxation and regulation of interstate commerce. The plan allows the Congress to elect a federal executive to oversee appointments to federal offices and direct military operations. It also provides for a Tribunal of Judges to hear the impeachments of federal officers, appeals, cases regarding piracy and felonies on the high seas, trade, and treaty issues.
The Argument Begins
The two sides have presented their proposals and now begin to debate the repercussions of each plan on June 16. Delegate William Paterson asserts that the national government described by the New Jersey Plan “sustains the sovereignty of the respective states” whereas the Virginia Plan’s national government absorbs all major powers. Paterson speaks for his delegation when he asks if it is “probable that the States would adopt & ratify a scheme, which they had never authorized us to propose?” He believes that the Virginia Plan is simply a way to increase the power of Congress by removing power from the states.
Virginian Edmund Randolph remains adamant regarding the “imbecility of the existing Confederacy, & the danger of delaying a substantial reform…The true question is whether we shall adhere to the federal plan, or introduce the national plan.”
The line is drawn between the two plans – should the Articles of Confederation be retained and modified to give the federal government a few more powers or should a national government be formed by writing an entirely new constitution?
After the proponents of the Virginia and New Jersey Plans have debated their proposed resolutions, Alexander Hamilton shakes the Convention up even more. Although Hamilton has remained silent throughout the proceedings thus far, he responds to the New Jersey Plan with the belief that the Virginia Plan doesn’t go far enough to place the power with the national government. Hamilton instead presents the Convention a radical plan of his own.
Hamilton claims that his silence to this point was “partly from respect to others whose superior abilities age & experience rendered him unwilling to bring forward ideas dissimilar to theirs, and partly from his delicate situation with respect to his own State, to whose sentiments as expressed by his Colleagues, he could by no means accede.” Nevertheless, he dominated the proceedings of June 18, challenging the two previously proposed options with his own bold plan. Hamilton called for a bicameral legislature with the lower house serving three-year terms and the upper house serving life-time terms. The Legislature would institute courts in each state, but a supreme judiciary would have appellate jurisdiction. The officials in the executive and judicial branches would also serve life-long terms. The central government in Hamilton’s plan is much stronger than that of the Virginia or New Jersey Plans, creating, in effect, an elected monarchy, and an aristocracy that would gain its power and status from the government.
Hamilton’s proposal to establish a constitution modeled after the British Constitution must have shocked the Convention, though James Madison says nothing directly about how it was received. When the Convention reconvened on June 19, it turned its attention to the New Jersey Plan, without consideration of Hamilton’s plan. Madison took the lead in attacking the New Jersey Plan, offering a series of arguments designed to demonstrate that the central government under the New Jersey Plan would not be strong enough to preserve the union of the states, or to guard against the ills the states had been laboring under.
The delegates sided with Madison, and the New Jersey Plan was brought to a vote in front of the Committee of the Whole and was defeated in favor of the altered Virginia Plan. But Hamilton’s nationalist attack against the states put advocates of the state governments even more so on the defensive.
For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.