On May 29, 1787, the third day of the Constitutional Convention, Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph submitted a proposal for a new form of government. The Virginia Plan, as it became known, was one of several presented to the Convention. Only two, however—the Virginia and New Jersey Plans—would be deliberated and voted upon by the full assembly. Virginia’s proposal opened the main business of the Convention and acted as a guide for its deliberations until the end.
Congress had authorized a convention to meet in Philadelphia for “the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” There was general agreement that the Articles were insufficient to meet the needs of the new nation (e.g., Congress lacked the power to enforce its policies, conflicts had arisen between states over issues of commerce and trade, and Congress was ineffectiveness in matters of foreign policy). In addition to these concerns, James Madison, the principal architect of the Virginia Plan, had written an essay (“The Vices of the Political System of the United States”) raising a concern about states acting in a self-interested manner with disregard to the national interest. He and his fellow delegates from Virginia took advantage of a two-week delay before a quorum had arrived in Philadelphia to formulate their plan and to coordinate a strategy. Their proposal went beyond simply amending the existing form of government, advocating that a “national government with a supreme Legislative, Executive & Judiciary” replace the “merely federal” system of the Articles of Confederation.
Early preparation paid off for the proponents of this stronger, “national” government. Opponents were unable to organize to put forth an alternative “purely federal” proposal (the New Jersey Plan) until June 15. By that time, although it at first seemed radical to many of the delegates, the fundamental changes contained in Virginia’s plan had been accepted. New Jersey’s alternative was rejected in favor of continuing to follow the outline of the Virginia Plan. South Carolina delegate Charles Pinckney had offered a plan of his own the same day as Randolph, but Virginia’s proposal provided the framework guiding the debates in the Convention.
The final product, the Constitution, therefore represents the outcome of a process of elaboration upon and amendment to the Virginia Plan. The “articles of Union,” as the plan referred to itself, consisted of fifteen resolutions. Central to its structure was a supreme national government established upon the doctrine of the separation of powers: three separate branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) replaced the single Congress of the Articles. Gouverneur Morris, delegate from Pennsylvania, explained the distinction between a federal and a supreme national government—“the former being a mere compact resting on the good faith of the parties; the latter having a compleat and compulsive operation.” Major emphasis was placed upon a legislative branch that was bicameral, each house consisting of members proportionate to the size of the state (by taxes, population, or both). This proved to be the most contentious provision, next to the idea of a national government, as the Congress of the Articles provided each state an equal representation. Opponents of Virginia’s proposal eventually succeeded in forcing a compromise—obtaining the equality of states within the second of the two houses—despite the strong objections of Madison. The first house was to be chosen directly by the people, the second by the first house from nominees submitted by the state legislatures. Both houses were to choose the executive, which would be eligible for only a single term. The plan did not specify whether this branch would consist of a unitary or a plural executive. In addition to a judicial branch, the Virginia delegates proposed a Council of Revision composed of members of both executive and judicial branches, with the power to veto both national and state laws. Provisions for the amendment of the Constitution and its ratification by the people, rather than the states, were also included. Virginia’s Plan thus provided the skeletal framework of the new Constitution; the details were fleshed out by the Convention itself with some important deviations such as in the mode of electing the president and the equality of representation in the Senate.
Max Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention, 4 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1937); and James H. Hutson, ed., Supplement to the Records of the Federal Convention (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).