Improving Continental Governance
The Constitutional Convention, 1787. Allyn Cox (1973-1974) US Capitol, The Great Experiment Hall, Cox Corridors,

Improving Continental Governance

Major Themes at the Constitutional Convention

How did the delegates intend to improve the system of government?

On May 29, Edmund Randolph introduced the Virginia Plan containing 15 Resolutions.

Echoing Madison’s “Vices” of April 1787, he itemized five reasons why the Articles of Confederation must be radically altered:

  1. “It does not provide against foreign attacks.”
  2. “It does not secure Harmony to the States.”
  3. “It is incapable of producing certain blessings to the States.”
  4. “It cannot defend itself against encroachments.”
  5. “It is not superior to State constitutions.”

What are the central features of the Virginia Plan?

The single most important reason why the delegates were gathered was what Madison referred to as the multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of legislation at the state level. To correct these deficiencies, the Virginia Plan removed the state legislatures both structurally, and in terms of powers, from any place in the new continental arrangement. Most importantly, the plan proposed that

  1. The National Legislature would consist of two branches.
  2. The people of each State would elect the First Branch of the National Legislature. The Second Branch of the National Legislature would be elected by the first.
  3. The National Legislature would have power “to legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent,” and “to negative all laws passed by the States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union.”
  4. The National Legislature would elect a National Executive.
  5. The Executive and some number of justices from the National Judiciarywould form a Council of Revision. This Council would review laws passed by the National Legislature and have the power to reject any law, unless the National Legislature could pass the act again.
  6. The National Legislature would create the National Judiciary. This structure would consist of one or more supreme tribunals and inferior tribunals. Judges would be appointed for life, during good behavior.
  7. State Legislatures, Executives, and Judges would be bound by oath to support the Articles.
  8. The new plan for government would be ratified by the people, through assemblies of representatives chosen by the people.

Why was the Virginia Plan controversial?

The “oracle” Montesquieu had argued that for a people to remain free, they must reside in small, homogeneous communities. Public virtue was needed to secure a republic and this sentiment was endangered in large, heterogeneous communities. It is the unique contribution of Madison to challenge this traditional theory of self-government head on. In fact, he stands it on its head! His first verbal articulation of this position occurs on June 6, when he argues that majority faction is the mortal disease of popular government and traditional solutions to factious politics will no longer work. He thus directly challenges the traditional claim that people are happier in small republics. Just the opposite; unless we spread people out over an extended orbit and filter their opinions, passions, and interests through a scheme of representation, then popular government will come to a violent end. This speech is the precursor to the famous Federalist 10 essay and is part of the political theory underlying the Virginia Plan.

Scholars disagree about  the motives leading the Virginia delegation to introduce the Virginia Plan. Some scholars credit Madison for his strategic brilliance in shifting the attention away from revising the Articles of Confederation to this new and bold plan. Other interpreters point out that Virginia, the largest state, would benefit from the plan at the expense of the smaller states, who received equal representation under the Articles of Confederation. A number of political theorists portray the Virginia Plan as making the novel case for “the large republic” theory over against the traditional “small republic” theory articulated by Roger Sherman on June 6. What is clear from both Randolph’s arguments on May 29 and Madison’s position on June 6 is that the Virginians saw state legislatures, in both large and small states, as dangerous to liberty and justice. What is also clear is that Madison sees no principled reason for the equal representation of states qua states.

Major ThemesPrioritizing SecrecyImproving GovernancePreserving Power
Attaining StabilityCrafting the GovernmentCongressional PowerSlave Trade
Electoral College & PresidencyJudicial LimitsReinventing RepublicanismGeorge Washington