The Virginia Plan vs. the New Jersey Plan: A Constitutional Grudge Match

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

Virginia Plan vs. New Jersey Plan
While the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan shared some key elements, the differences mainly revolved around large- and small-state issues, such as representation in Congress. HowStuffWorks

Sometimes we talk about the Constitution of the United States — the document that lays out the law of the land for Americans — as if it were forged by gods on Mount Olympus and drifted down from the heavens, fully formed into George Washington's own hands, a flawless and sublime document.

The truth about the making of the Constitution is that it was a total mess — like, a "Real Housewives"-franchise-level mess. It took an unbelievable amount of heavy lifting to get it into working order, and since it became the supreme law of the land in 1789, it's been amended 27 times, with one amendment (the 21st) repealing a previous amendment (the 18th). And we're still squabbling over whether an 18th-century document can meet the needs of 21st-century people. But flawed as it may be, the Constitution is pretty impressive, considering its creation was required to fix the major weaknesses of its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation.

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A Terrible First Stab at Government

"The United States' first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, was fatally flawed from the moment it was adopted," says Stephen Phillips, a professor of political science at Clemson University. "It created a national government with very little power that was essentially impossible to change, and that consisted of only a legislature — no independent executive or judiciary."

The government set up under the Articles of Confederation was so bad it only lasted a decade. And it wasn't so much a government as a "firm league of friendship" between the 13 original states, which could all vote on issues that affected the collective, but decisions were only made when at least nine of the states voted the same way. It was a dicey time in American history.

"Economic and security crises mounted throughout the 1780s, showing the national government was simply unable to act to protect the national interest," says Phillips. "Political leaders recognized that the country needed a stronger national government, which meant a revised constitution. Amid the background of political crisis, the Confederation Congress authorized a convention of delegates from the states to debate amendments to the Articles of Confederation to create a stronger national government with greater power. The important question for the delegates is what this government would look like and what powers would it have."

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The Virginia (Large-State) Plan

Enter the Constitutional Convention of 1787, wherein 55 delegates from each state met in Philadelphia to address the problems with the Articles but ended up completely overhauling the U.S. government instead.

It started with James Madison, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, introducing the Virginia Plan, which proposed a much more powerful national government with three branches: a legislature, executive and judiciary.

"A key part of the Virginia Plan was a legislature with two different chambers, a lower house and upper house where the number of representatives each state had would be determined by its population or wealth — the larger the population, the greater the representation it would have," says Phillips.

The key components of the Virginia Plan:

  • Two houses of Congress (a bicameral legislature)
  • Representation based on population
  • National government with three branches: legislative, executive and judiciary
  • Stronger national government; Congress has power to tax and provide for the national defense

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The New Jersey (Small-State) Plan

Of course, states with smaller populations were not keen on the idea of a legislature where representation in both houses would be based on population, as it would threaten their independence and power. In response to the Virginia Plan, the small states proposed the New Jersey Plan. The New Jersey Plan, written primarily by William Paterson, voted to keep the single-house legislature with equal state representation from the Articles of Confederation, while adding a national executive and a judiciary, and expanding the power of the national government.

The key components of the New Jersey Plan:

  • One house of Congress (a unicameral legislature)
  • Each state has equal representation, regardless of population
  • National government with three branches: legislative, executive and judiciary
  • Congress has power to tax and regulate interstate commerce

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Large States vs. Small States

In this way, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 turned into a grudge match between the large states and the small states. After a few days of debate, the New Jersey Plan was rejected — even a few people who helped Paterson write the plan voted against it. But the small states were so unhappy with the failure of the New Jersey Plan and the legislature offered by the Virginia Plan that there was a real possibility they would leave the Constitutional Convention.

At this point, it became clear that a compromise on representation was needed between the large and small states. After much debate, delegates agreed to the Connecticut Compromise, introduced by Connecticut's Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth.

"The Connecticut Compromise proposed a national legislature wherein the lower house representation would be based on population and the upper house states would have an equal vote. The Connecticut Compromise struck a middle ground that was able to win support from both large and small states," says Phillips.

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The Constitution Evolves

However, the Virginia Plan remained influential at the Constitutional Convention and beyond and is still considered the blueprint for the Constitution. But James Madison didn't write the Constitution alone. The main parts of his Virginia Plan were adopted: a much stronger national government with the power to tax and provide for the national defense, and a legislature with two houses, a national executive and a judiciary that share power. After the Connecticut Compromise, there was much debate at the Constitutional Convention surrounding what these individual parts would look like. There was a lot to hammer out around how we would elect the president, the independence of the judiciary, states' rights and representation in the legislature, and a lot of lesser-known delegates won on some critical issues.

"There's a reason why equal state representation in the Senate — an idea Madison fought for tooth and nail — became not only the convention's greatest compromise but now the only permanent, unamendable part of the Constitution," says Phillips. "The Constitution was written through collaboration and compromise. No delegate achieved everything they wanted, but that did not stop them from working hard to create a more perfect union."

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