Philadelphia – The end of May saw the Convention responding to the Virginia delegation’s bold plan. The Virginians had proposed replacing the Articles of Confederation – a task far beyond what many Convention delegates thought they were authorized to do – with a powerful national government. When proponents of this plan failed to win agreement that such a radical plan was necessary, they moved to the more basic task of achieving consensus on the establishment of a national government consisting of legislative, executive and judicial branches. The devil would be in the details, and through the first week of June, delegates worked through the details of the Virginia Plan. Hiding under those details, however, was the question of whether the delegates were debating a revision of a confederation of sovereign states, or the creation of an entirely new national government that would act directly on citizens.

The Legislative Branch

This question lay under the debate about how to apportion representatives to the national legislature. The Virginia Plan had called for apportionment by population. Its advocates eagerly pushed this proposal until George Read, from tiny Delaware, drew a line in the sand. The delegates from Delaware, he pointed out, were not authorized to give up Delaware’s equal representation, and any attempt to push that issue might force the Delaware delegation to leave the Convention. If the states retained equality of representation, Madison feared, this would endanger the idea of a strong national government and permit the idea of a confederation to continue. He proposed a parliamentary “expedient”  to send this issue to a committee, thus “saving the Delaware deputies from embarrassment”; Mr. Read would not relent, and the motion was tabled.

Though some features of the Virginia Plan earned agreement – a bicameral legislature, the election of the lower house directly by the people, and certain powers of the legislative branch, – there were more setbacks. In particular, the mode of election of the upper house emerged as a point of controversy, and one that was not immediately solved. Further, Madison himself relented on a feature of the Virginia Plan which gave the national legislature the power to call forth force “against any member of the Union failing to fulfill its duty”. Madison (in a statement that Southerners would remember decades later) observed, “A union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force agst. a State, would look more like a declaration of war, than an infliction of punishment, and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”

The Executive Branch

June 1st, 2nd, and 4th saw extensive discussion of the establishment of the Executive branch. Fear of monarchy made this a complicated debate. The elder statesman, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, followed a long pause in the discussion by encouraging the delegates to make their voices heard. The Convention delegates finally agreed that the Executive branch should be comprised of one person, the President, who would hold the power to affect national laws, appoint officers not otherwise specified, and veto legislation. With great concern surrounding the corruption possible if these powers lie with one person, the delegates determined that any presidential veto will be subject to overrule by a 2/3rds majority of either house. This was not the last that would be said about the Executive branch, however.

The Judicial Branch

With consensus surrounding the need for a final tribunal in the nation, early June saw the creation of the Supreme Court. The delegates agreed upon the need for a supreme tribunal, yet had many questions surrounding the selection of judges and the establishment of “inferior tribunals” throughout the United States.

On June 5th the assembly determined that the legislative branch will have the authority to name judges in the Supreme Court and allowed for life-time tenure in office pending “good behavior.”  No consensus could be reached regarding the establishment of “inferior tribunals” and was postponed until a later date.

New State Representation in the Union

Resolution 10 in Edmond Randolph’s Virginia Plan was approved to allow the admission of new states into the country if their bounds feel within the United States.

For more detailed information on the Constitutional Convention, please visit Prof. Gordon Lloyd’s web companion to the Philadelphia Convention.

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One Response to “Countdown to the Constitution – Virginia Plan Debated”

  1. Interesting to know that Virginia was in support of stronger Federal powers. This is a very engaging series!

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