Attaining "Stability and Permanency"
Major Themes at the Constitutional Convention
What was the Hamilton Plan?
June 18 is Hamilton day at the convention. He argued that the New Jersey Plan simply duplicated the defects of the Articles and thus failed to address the source of the problem, namely, state sovereignty. And, he argued further, that the Virginia Plan didn’t go far enough. It didn’t adequately subdue the state governments—Hamilton wanted the governors of the states to be selected by the national government along the lines of the previous colonial administration—and it was insufficiently high-toned.
Hamilton stated that there are five “great & essential principles necessary for the support of government”:
- ” An active & constant interest in supporting it,”
- “The love of power. Men love power,”
- ” An habitual attachment of the people,”
- “Force by which may be understood a coercion of laws or coercion of arms,”
According to Hamilton neither plan met these five objectives.
To Hamilton, the task was “to go as far in order to attain stability and permanency as republican principles will admit. Let one branch of the Legislature hold their places for life or at least during good behaviour. Let the Executive also be for life.” Put differently, only the British Government came close to securing good government. The feature he admired in the British system was the duration in office for the office holders. He suggested that the terms in office proposed in both the Virginia and New Jersey plans were inadequate. As long as the chief executive and Senators were elected, for example, and subject to impeachment, then we could trust them to have life terms! This was a major departure from what was accepted as a republican form of government.
What were Hamilton’s motives?
It is tempting to speculate why Hamilton spent so much time on his eleven-point plan and what impact he had. One bit of American mythology has Hamilton deliberately introducing such an outrageous plan in order to make the Virginia rather than the New Jersey plan look moderate. This lovely story concludes by demonstrating that the very next day the amended Virginia Plan is adopted and subsequently Hamilton leaves the convention for New York. But there is no evidence that Hamilton’s speech swayed anyone to change their vote from the New Jersey Plan to the Virginia Plan.
To what extent did the Hamilton Plan help redefine republicanism?
The importance of Hamilton’s speech is that it pushed the delegates, but much later on, to distinguish the true from the false definition of monarchy and aristocracy. The false definition, says Hamilton, is longevity in office; the true characteristic is how you get into office. And by the latter stages of the convention, the delegates were willing to entertain a much more “elevated” form of government akin to the one Hamilton so brashly presented a couple of months earlier. Hamilton insisted that the key to monarchy and aristocracy is that the office holders inherit their position; they are not elected by the people. This distinction is critical because it challenges the traditional republican doctrine that “where annual elections end, tyranny begins,” and that intrinsic to republicanism are short terms in office with provisions for recall and rotation.