Preserving the Power of the Smaller States

Major Themes at the Constitutional Convention

Why was the New Jersey Plan introduced?

On June 11, Roger Sherman proposed a compromise: rather than have proportional representation of the people in both the House and the Senate, why not agree to proportional representation in the House and equal representation for each state in the Senate? The rejection of this compromise, led the New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Delaware delegations, and Mr. Martin from Maryland, to propose the New Jersey Plan.

Madison’s Notes for June 15th records the following: “Mr. Dickinson said to Mr. Madison, “You see the consequence of pushing things too far.” The 11 Resolutions of the New Jersey Plan restored the single chamber structure of the Articles, where each state was represented equally regardless of the size of its population. As far as powers were concerned, the power to tax and the power to regulate interstate commerce were added to the powers that the union had under the Articles.

It is tempting to see the introduction of the New Jersey Plan as an attempt by the small states to fight off the impending victory of the large-state supported Virginia Plan. But this is to simplify too much. There were some “large minded” men from small states—Dickinson, for example—who were willing to meet the Madisonians half way, but to no avail.

Was introducing the New Jersey Plan a principled or political move?

What are the principles, if any, that undergird this plan? On June 16, for example, Pinckney observed, rather cynically, that no principles were involved: “The whole comes down to this, as he conceived. Give N. Jersey an equal vote, and she will dismiss her scruple, and concur in the Nati[ona]l. system.” Pinckney ignored two “scruples” that mattered to those proposing the New Jersey plan.

The first scruple concerns the rule of law. On February 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress endorsed the meeting of a Grand Convention, “for the sole purpose of revising the articles of confederation and reporting to Congress and the several state legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” The defenders of the New Jersey Plan pointed to this mandate and suggested that the Virginia Plan was illegal. The second principled position was the question of prudence, namely, the improbability that the Virginia Plan would be adopted. The defenders of the New Jersey Plan argued that it would be more likely to be adopted by the electorate than the never before imagined Virginia Plan. On June 16, Lansing, in support of Patterson, stated: “The Scheme is itself totally novel. There is no parallel to it to be found.”

The New Jersey Plan supporters had to contend with the question, why are states qua states entitled to equal representation? There are two answers:

  1. The colonies became the States and the States had been equally represented in every continental scheme from the start. Why alter tradition?
  2. The Declaration of Independence declared the independence, equality, and sovereignty of each state. And the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the states as part of the principles of the peace.
Major ThemesPrioritizing SecrecyImproving GovernancePreserving Power
Attaining StabilityCrafting the GovernmentCongressional PowerSlave Trade
Electoral College & PresidencyJudicial LimitsReinventing RepublicanismGeorge Washington