What Was the New Jersey Plan?

The rejected constitutional proposal that led to a historic compromise

engraved illustration of William Paterson
William Paterson, author of the New Jersey Plan.

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The New Jersey Plan was a proposal for the structure of the U.S. federal government put forward by William Paterson at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The proposal was a response to the Virginia Plan, which Paterson believed would put too much power in large states to the disadvantage of smaller states.

Key Takeaways: The New Jersey Plan

  • The New Jersey Plan was a proposal for the structure of the United States federal government, presented by William Paterson at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
  • The plan was created in response to the Virginia Plan. Paterson's goal was to create a plan that ensured small states would have a voice in the national legislature.
  • In the New Jersey Plan, the government would have one legislative house in which each state would have one vote.
  • The New Jersey Plan was rejected, but it led to a compromise meant to balance the interests of small and large states.

After being considered, Paterson's plan was eventually rejected. However, his introduction of the plan had still had a substantial impact, as it led to the Great Compromise of 1787. The compromises established at the convention resulted in the form of American government which exists to the present day.

Background

In the summer of 1787, 55 men from 12 states convened in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention. (Rhode Island did not send a delegation.) The purpose was to form a better government, as the Articles of Confederation had serious flaws.

In the days before the convention commenced, Virginians, including James Madison and the state's governor, Edmund Randolph, conceived what became known as the Virginia Plan. Under the proposal, which was presented to the convention on May 29, 1787, the new federal government would have a bicameral legislative branch with an upper and lower house. Both houses would be apportioned per state based on population, so the large states, such as Virginia, would have a clear advantage in steering national policy.

The New Jersey Plan's Proposal

William Paterson, representing New Jersey, took the lead in opposing the Virginia Plan. Following two weeks of debate, Paterson introduced his own proposal: the New Jersey Plan. The plan argued for increasing the power of the federal government to correct problems with the Articles of Confederation, but maintaining the single house of Congress which existed under the Articles of Confederation.

In Paterson's plan, each state would get one vote in Congress, so there would be equal power divided among states regardless of population.

Paterson's plan had features beyond the apportionment argument, such as the creation of a Supreme Court and the right of the federal government to tax imports and regulate trade. But the greatest difference from the Virginia Plan was over the issue of apportionment: the allocating of legislative seats based on population.

The Great Compromise

Delegates from the large states were naturally opposed to the New Jersey Plan, as it would diminish their influence. The convention ultimately rejected Paterson's plan by a 7-3 vote, yet the delegates from the small states remained adamantly opposed to the Virginia plan.

The disagreement over apportionment of the legislature had the convention stymied. What saved the convention was a compromise brought forward to Roger Sherman of Connecticut, which became known as the Connecticut Plan or the Great Compromise.

Under the compromise proposal, there would be a bicameral legislature, with a lower house whose membership was apportioned by the population of the states, and an upper house in which each state would have two members and two votes.

The next problem that arose was a debate over how the population of enslaved Americans—a considerable population in some of the southern states—would be counted in the apportionment for the House of Representatives. If the enslaved population counted toward apportionment, the slave states would acquire more power in Congress, though many of those being counted in the population had no rights to speak of. This conflict led to a compromise in which slaves were counted not as full people, but as 3/5 of a person for purposes of apportionment.

As the compromises were worked out, William Paterson threw his support behind the new Constitution as did other delegates from smaller states. Though Paterson's New Jersey Plan had been rejected, the debates over his proposal ensured that the U.S. Senate would be structured with each state having two Senators.

The issue of how the Senate is constituted often comes up in political debates in the modern era. As the American population is centered around urban areas, it can seem unfair that states with small populations have the same number of Senators as a New York or a California. Yet that structure is the legacy of William Paterson's argument that small states would be deprived of any power at all in a completely apportioned legislative branch.

Sources

  • Roche, John P. "Constitutional Convention of 1787." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, edited by Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth L. Karst, 2nd ed., vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2000, pp. 517-523. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Ellis, Richard E. "Paterson, William (1745–1806)." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, edited by Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth L. Karst, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2000, pp. 1882-1884. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Levy, Leonard W. "New Jersey Plan." Encyclopedia of the American Constitution, edited by Leonard W. Levy and Kenneth L. Karst, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Macmillan Reference USA, 2000, p. 1800. Gale Virtual Reference Library.