The Three Plans from Which the Constitution Grew

The Constitutional Convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787. Two different plans of government, and one plan compromising between them, shaped the Convention’s deliberations.

On May 29, Edmund Randolph introduced “The Virginia Plan,” which reflected the shift of sovereignty from the States to the Federal Government that Madison had recommended in his “Vices of the Political System of the United States.” It stripped the states qua states of the pre-eminence they held under the Articles of Confederation. In particular, according to the Virginia Plan, the states would no longer have the right either to equal representation in the federal structure or to elect representatives to the Congress. The states fared no better in the area of powers: Congress was granted the right “to legislate in all cases to which the separate States were incompetent . . . [and] . . . to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening in the opinion of the national legislature the articles of Union.” The Virginia Plan also introduced bicameralism and the separation of powers to the federal structure.

By contrast, the New Jersey Plan, introduced by William Patterson on June 15, did not reduce the power of the states. It retained the structural features of the Articles of Confederation and focused instead on enhancing the power of a unicameral Congress in which each state was equally represented. The plan acknowledged the defects in the Articles, but these “vices” were due solely to the want of power. It authorized Congress “to pass acts for raising a revenue . . . [and] . . . for the regulation of trade & commerce as well with foreign nations as with each other.”

On July 16th the delegates adopted, by a narrow margin, the “Connecticut Compromise” which retained the bicameral legislature of the Virginia Plan but gave equal representation to the people in the House and equal representation to each State in the Senate. The compromise also restricted the Senate from altering money bills introduced by the House, a feature that would be absent in the final Constitution.

The Committee of Detail Report, which was to fill in some of the details of the working plan, was presented to the Convention on August 6th. Among other things, the Report abandoned an earlier feature of the Virginia Plan: Congress was no longer authorized to “legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent.” Instead of this broad grant of power, Congress was given enumerated, that is specified, powers.