Background to the Constitution

The Congress of the Articles of Confederation in February,1787, adopted a resolution calling for a convention of delegates from the thirteen states to be held in Philadelphia beginning in May “for the sole purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.” Twelve of the states chose convention delegates. Only Rhode Island declined to do so. Fifty-five men attended some or all of the convention. The convention was supposed to begin on May 14 but did not do so because not enough delegates had arrived to constitute a quorum. James Madison arrived early on May 3, and he and other delegates from Virginia and Pennsylvania then met informally and prepared a new plan of government to present to the convention once it began. Finally, on May 25, enough delegates had arrived to constitute a quorum, and the convention began. The delegates unanimously elected General George Washington to preside as the President of the Convention. The delegates soon decided that instead of simply “revising the Articles of Confederation,” they would write a completely new constitution with a very different system of government from that which the nation had under the Articles.

After spending the entire summer behind closed doors in secrecy dealing with several difficult issues, on September 17, 1787, the new Constitution of the United States was completed. Thirty-nine delegates present at the end of the convention signed the Constitution. Three delegates – Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and George Mason of Virginia—refused to sign it. The new Constitution was then sent to the states for ratification.

The Virginia Plan was prepared by James Madison of Virginia, but Edmund Randolph of Virginia introduced this proposal for a new government at an early meeting of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The Virginia Plan illustrates Baron de Montesquieu’s influence on Madison since, like Montesquieu in 1748, it called for three separate, independent branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. It also provided for a bicameral legislative branch with members of one chamber chosen by the people and members of the other chamber elected by the first chamber. Representation for each state in both chambers would be in proportion to the number of free inhabitants in the state: the larger the number of free inhabitants in a state, the greater the number of members of both chambers that state would receive. The national legislature would have the power to overrule any state law that conflicted with “the articles of union” and to use force against states that resisted. The national legislature would choose a national executive as well as a national judiciary consisting of one or more supreme courts and lower courts. Finally, the executive and “a convenient number of the national judiciary” would comprise a Council of Revision with the authority to examine every act of the national legislature before it takes effect and every act of a state legislature before a veto thereof would be final. The Virginia Plan was supported by delegates from the more populous states. The U. S. Constitution as written and adopted at Philadelphia included several provisions of the Virginia Plan.
William Patterson of New Jersey introduced the New Jersey Plan at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It was in large part a response to the Virginia Plan introduced earlier at the convention. According to the New Jersey Plan, in addition to the powers Congress had under the Articles of Confederation, Congress would have the power to raise revenue by taxing imported goods, “by stamps on paper, vellum or parchment,” and by postage on all letters passing through the post office. Unlike the Congress of the Articles, Congress would now also have the power to regulate trade and commerce. In addition, Congress would elect an executive to enforce all national acts and to direct military operations. The New Jersey Plan said nothing about changing the structure of Congress or the representation of states therein, and thus, Congress would remain a unicameral body in which each state would have one vote as it was under the Articles of Confederation. A national judiciary would be established consisting of a supreme court whose judges would be appointed by the executive and who would hold their offices during good behavior. Finally, the New Jersey Plan provided that acts of Congress and treaties would be the supreme law, and state judicial rulings and state laws to the contrary would be void. The New Jersey Plan was supported by delegates from the less populous states. The U. S. Constitution as written and adopted at Philadelphia included several provisions of the New Jersey Plan.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut introduced the so-called Connecticut Compromise using ideas found in both the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Because there was general agreement among the delegates that Congress would be the more powerful of the three separate branches of the new government, representation for each state in this new Congress proved to be the most hotly disputed issue. For that reason, the Connecticut Compromise which eventually settled the issue is also called “the Great Compromise.” It called for a bicameral U. S. Congress establishing a Senate and a House of Representatives. Each state would be equally represented in the Senate by two senators from each state regardless of the state’s population. Each state’s representation in the House of Representatives would be determined in proportion to the state’s population as determined by the census to be conducted every ten years. The greater a state’s population, the more members of the House of Representatives the state would be entitled to send. However, each state would be guaranteed a minimum of one member of the House regardless of the state’s population. Historians agree that adoption of the Great Compromise was crucial to the success of the convention and the new Constitution.