Virginia vs. New Jersey Plans: Paths to the Great Compromise

The creation of the United States Constitution was a pivotal moment in American history, marked by intense debate and compromise. Two key proposals, the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, played a crucial role in shaping the final document. This article compares and contrasts these plans and explores how they led to the “Great Compromise,” which ultimately determined the structure of the U.S. government.

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The Virginia Plan: A Vision for a Strong Federal Government

Drafted by James Madison, the Virginia Plan was presented at the Constitutional Convention in May 1787. It proposed a strong federal government structure, contrasting sharply with the existing Articles of Confederation’s weak central government. The plan outlined a three-branch system: legislative, executive, and judiciary, which laid the groundwork for the modern American government.

Key Features of the Virginia Plan:

  1. Bicameral Legislature: The plan proposed a two-house legislature, with representation in both houses based on state population. This favored larger states, as they would have more representatives and, consequently, more influence.
  2. Strong National Government: It advocated for a national government with broad powers, including the right to override state laws.
  3. Representation Based on Population: This was particularly appealing to more populous states, as it gave them greater representation and voting power in the national legislature.

The New Jersey Plan: A Counterproposal for Smaller States

In response to the Virginia Plan, William Paterson of New Jersey presented the New Jersey Plan in June 1787. This plan aimed to amend, rather than replace, the Articles of Confederation and was tailored to address the concerns of smaller states.

Key Features of the New Jersey Plan:

  1. Unicameral Legislature: Unlike the Virginia Plan, it proposed a single-house legislature, maintaining the structure under the Articles of Confederation.
  2. Equal Representation for States: Each state, regardless of size, would have equal representation. This was a significant departure from the Virginia Plan’s population-based representation model.
  3. Limited Powers to National Government: The plan conferred additional powers to the federal government, such as taxation and regulation of commerce, but these powers were more limited compared to the Virginia Plan.

The Clash of Interests

The Virginia and New Jersey Plans highlighted the fundamental divide between larger and smaller states. Larger states, like Virginia and Pennsylvania, supported the Virginia Plan’s population-based representation, which would grant them more power in the new government. On the other hand, smaller states, fearing domination by larger states, rallied behind the New Jersey Plan’s equal representation model.

This division threatened to derail the Constitutional Convention, as neither side seemed willing to compromise. The larger states argued that representation based on population was a fairer system, reflecting the principle that the opinions of more people should carry more weight. Conversely, smaller states contended that equal representation was necessary to protect their interests and prevent tyranny by the majority.

The Great Compromise: Bridging the Divide

The impasse was finally broken by the Connecticut Compromise, commonly known as the Great Compromise, proposed by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut in July 1787. This compromise skillfully blended elements from both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans to create a structure acceptable to both large and small states.

Elements of the Great Compromise:

  1. Bicameral Legislature: The compromise established a bicameral legislature, as proposed in the Virginia Plan.
    • House of Representatives: Representation based on state population, satisfying larger states.
    • Senate: Each state would have two senators, ensuring equal representation for smaller states.
  2. Balanced Power: This structure provided a balance of power, preventing either group of states from dominating the federal government.
  3. Compromise on Slavery: Another critical aspect was the Three-Fifths Compromise, which determined how slaves would be counted for representation and taxation purposes.

The Enduring Impact of the Great Compromise

The Great Compromise did more than just resolve an impasse at the Constitutional Convention; it set a standard for how diverse and often conflicting interests could be reconciled in the governance of a new nation. This compromise was not just about numbers or representation; it was about the very nature of American democracy.

The Legacy in American Politics:

  1. Foundation for Federalism: The compromise was a critical step in establishing federalism as a guiding principle of the U.S. government, balancing power between the national and state governments.
  2. Model for Future Compromises: It served as a model for future political compromises, demonstrating that conflicting interests could be harmonized through negotiation and mutual concession.

The Challenges and Criticisms

While the Great Compromise was a necessary solution for its time, it was not without its critics and challenges. Some argued that it gave disproportionate power to smaller states, especially in the Senate, where each state, regardless of size, had equal representation. Others contended that it failed to address the fundamental issue of slavery, merely postponing the inevitable conflict that would erupt into the Civil War.

Critical Analysis:

  1. Disproportionate Influence: Critics argue that the equal representation in the Senate gives smaller states undue influence over national policy.
  2. Slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise: The compromise on slavery, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation, is now seen as a deeply flawed solution to a moral crisis.

Reflection on Democratic Principles

The story of the Virginia and New Jersey Plans, and the resultant Great Compromise, is a reflection on the complexities of democratic governance. It reveals how different visions of representation and power can clash, and how finding a middle ground is often essential for political stability and unity.

Democracy and Compromise:

  1. Reflecting Diverse Interests: The compromise underlines the importance of considering diverse interests in a democracy, ensuring that all voices, regardless of size or power, are heard.
  2. The Art of Political Negotiation: It highlights the need for negotiation and compromise in politics, especially in a nation as diverse as the United States.

Conclusion: A Foundational Compromise in American History

In conclusion, the Virginia and New Jersey Plans, and their culmination in the Great Compromise, are foundational elements of American constitutional history. They demonstrate the challenges of creating a government that represents a diverse population with varying interests and sizes. The Great Compromise, while imperfect, was a crucial step in forming a more unified and balanced federal government. It remains a significant example of how compromise and negotiation are essential in a democracy, especially when faced with seemingly insurmountable differences.

As students of political science and government, understanding these plans and their impact on the Constitution provides valuable insights into the complexities of federalism, representation, and the art of political compromise. The lessons learned from the Constitutional Convention continue to resonate in modern American politics, reminding us of the ongoing need to balance diverse interests in the pursuit of a more perfect union.