Virginia, New Jersey, compromise
The 13 former colonies were of three different cultures – New England, Southern, and middle – with somewhat different economic interests. They were of wildly different sizes, ranging from tiny Rhode Island to mammoth Virginia, which then incorporated the area that later became Kentucky and West Virginia. Yes, they spoke a common language and the white men (most of them) were of common ancestry. Yes, they had more or less pulled in the same direction during the long war against England. And yes, they recognized that in a world hostile to republics, they had better remain united if possible. But the practical obstacles were so great! How do you start with such mixed ingredients and federate them into a political unit that they all can live with?
One thing you do is elect George Washington as president of the Constitutional Convention. As Jefferson said to him in another context, “North and South will hang together, if they can hang on you.”
Another thing you do is hope that the various States send enough delegates of exceptional intelligence, experience and public-spiritedness to outnumber their duller, less experienced, and less idealistic colleagues, which happened. Of the 55 representatives of the States who actually attended (out of 70 appointed), more than half had been trained as lawyers, but the gathering included representatives of the professions and trades, and smallholders. Most had government experience, including several who had been governors. Most were past or present members of the Confederation Congress, many during the Revolution. Most were substantial landowners, most were wealthy. Twenty-five, or nearly half, were slaveholders.
The third thing you do is to pray for a miracle. In theory, the Convention was supposed to revise the Articles of Confederation, which functioned more like a treaty among nations than a government. (To put it into modern terms, it was more like NATO than like France or Germany.) And, remember, allegiance to their own colony, or colony turned State, is what these men knew. When Jefferson said “my country” he meant, not the 13 States, but Virginia. To turn 13 states into a nation would require a miracle, nothing less.
The delegates took a while to arrive. But Madison was there almost two weeks early, and he had a plan, and while he and other delegates waited for a quorum to assemble, he discussed it with them. Even before the gathering convened, delegates from Pennsylvania and Virginia had informally agreed to support Madison, and that became the convention’s point of departure.
Virginia governor Edmund Randolph presented it, and it became known as the Virginia plan. It envisaged the United States as a republic (in which the people elect representatives), rather than a confederation (in which the representatives are appointed by states ). It proposed a bicameral legislature, in which the lower house, after having been elected by the people, would elect both the executive and the upper house. Unlike today’s Senate, in the Virginia Plan, both houses were to be proportional to population.
Most features of Madison’s plan were familiar to these former Englishmen. English law had defined separate legislative and executive functions. English practice had accustomed them to bicameral legislatures. The idea of an upper house to check the passions of the lower house was supported by experience as well as theory, although it wasn’t clear who (in the absence of a hereditary aristocracy) should fill it. In addition, Madison created a third branch of government by severing the judiciary from the executive, so as to lessen the chances of judicial corruption. While agreeing to this, delegates disagreed on who should name them. Some thought the executive, some the legislature. (The eventual compromise led to the system that we know, of executive nomination and legislative confirmation.)
However, in June, a caucus of several small states reported what became known as the New Jersey Plan, or the Small State Plan, which proposed keeping the existing system but merely strengthening certain features such as the ability to levy taxes. The fear was that in time smaller states would be overwhelmed, not only by those largest in population at the time – Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts – but by the future growth of the Southern states.
In turn, Roger Sherman proposed what came to be called the Connecticut Compromise, leaving the lower house proportionate to population but giving each State equal numbers in the upper house, and Benjamin Franklin added the requirement that revenue bills originate in the lower house, and made the members of the upper house free agents, rather than representatives of their states voting on instruction of their state legislatures.
As we all know, in the final document the lower house did not elect either the upper house or the president. The president was to be chosen by an electoral college, or by the lower house with each state having one vote if no candidate obtained an electoral college majority.
How the upper house was to be composed, and whether slaves were to be included in enumeration for representation, and whether the slave trade should be abolished, and the nature and tenure of the executive and judiciary branches were the most divisive issues. They were important issues, but we can’t stop to discuss them. With these things settled (as, for instance, by the three-fifths compromise), the rest was easy.
Shortly before the document was to be signed, it was proposed to lower the size of congressional districts from 40,000 to 30,000 citizens – in other words, to bring the government closer to the people by expanding the number of representatives. Here George Washington made his one substantive contribution: He said he agreed with the proposal – and the Convention adopted it without further debate.
On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the Constitution was signed and sent to the Confederation Congress for submittal to the people. As the final delegates were signing the document, Franklin commented on the painting of a sun behind Washington’s chair at the front of the room. He said he often looked at the painting, “without being able to tell, whether it was rising or setting. But now at length, I have the happiness to know it is a rising, and not a setting sun.”