What Was the Virginia Plan?

U.S. Constitutional Convention. Painting by Howard Chandler Christy (1840)
U.S. Constitutional Convention. Painting by Howard Chandler Christy (1840). GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

The Virginia Plan was a proposal to establish a bicameral legislature in the newly-founded United States. Drafted by James Madison in 1787, the plan recommended that states be represented based upon their population numbers, and it also called for the creation of three branches of government. While the Virginia Plan was not adopted in full, parts of the proposal were incorporated into the Great Compromise of 1787, which laid the foundation for the creation of the U.S. Constitution.

Key Takeaways: The Virginia Plan

  • The Virginia Plan was a proposal drafted by James Madison and discussed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
  • The plan called for a bicameral legislature with the number of representatives for each state to be determined by the state's population size.
  • The Great Compromise of 1787 incorporated elements of the Virginia Plan into the new Constitution, replacing the Articles of Confederation.

Background

Following the establishment of the United States’ independence from Britain, the new nation was operating under the Articles of Confederation: an agreement among the thirteen original colonies that the U.S. was a confederation of sovereign states. Because each state was an independent entity with its own governmental system, it soon became apparent that the idea of a confederation wasn’t going to work, particularly in cases of conflict. In the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened to evaluate the problems with governing under the Articles of Confederation.

Several plans for modifying the government were proposed by the delegates to the convention. Under the direction of delegate William Paterson, the New Jersey Plan suggested a unicameral system, in which legislators voted as a single assembly. In addition, this proposal offered each state a single vote, regardless of population size. Madison, along with Virginia’s governor Edmund Randolph, presented their proposal, which included fifteen resolutions, as a contrast to the New Jersey Plan. Although this proposal is often called the Virginia Plan, it is sometimes referred to as the Randolph Plan in the governor’s honor.

Principles

The Virginia Plan suggested first and foremost that the United States govern by way of a bicameral legislature. This system would split legislators into two houses, as opposed to the single assembly put forth by the New Jersey Plan, and legislators would be held to specified term limits.

According to the Virginia Plan, each state would be represented by a number of legislators determined by the population of free inhabitants. Such a proposal was of benefit to Virginia and other large states, but smaller states with lower populations were concerned that they wouldn’t have enough representation.

The Virginia Plan called for a government divided into three distinct branches— executive, legislative, and judicial—which would create a system of checks and balances. Perhaps more importantly, the proposal suggested the concept of the federal negative, which meant that the federal legislative body would have the power to veto any state laws seen as “contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union.” In other words, state laws could not contradict federal ones. Specifically, Madison wrote:

“Resolved that the Legislative Executive and Judiciary powers within the several States ought to be bound by oath to support the articles of Union.”

The Federal Negative

Madison’s proposal for the federal negative—the power of Congress to veto and override state laws—became a bone of contention among the delegates on June 8. Originally, the Convention had agreed to a somewhat limited federal negative, but in June, South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney proposed that the federal negative should apply to “all laws which [Congress] should judge to be improper.” Madison seconded the motion, warning delegates that a limited federal negative could become an issue later on, when states began to argue about the constitutionality of individual vetoes.

The Great Compromise

Ultimately, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were tasked with making a decision, and so they had to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of both the New Jersey and Virginia Plans. While the Virginia Plan was appealing to larger states, smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan, with their delegates feeling they would have more fair representation in the new government.

Instead of adopting either of these proposals, a third option was presented by Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut. Sherman’s plan included a bicameral legislature, as laid out in the Virginia Plan, but recommended provided a compromise to satisfy concerns about population-based representation. In Sherman's plan, each state would have two representatives in the Senate and a population-determined number of representatives in the House.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed that this plan was fair to everyone and voted to pass it into legislation in 1787. This proposal structuring the U.S. government has been called both the Connecticut Compromise and the Great Compromise. A year later, in 1788, Madison worked with Alexander Hamilton to create The Federalist Papers, a detailed pamphlet which explained to Americans how their new system of government would work once the new Constitution was ratified, replacing the ineffective Articles of Confederation.

Sources

  • "The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison on June 15." The The Avalon Project, Yale Law School/Lillian Goldman Law Library. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_615.asp#1
  • Moss, David, and Marc Campasano. "James Madison, the 'Federal Negative,' and the Making of the U.S. Constitution." Harvard Business School Case 716-053, February 2016. http://russellmotter.com/9.19.17_files/Madison%20Case%20Study.pdf
  • “The Virginia Plan.” The Anti-Federalist Papers. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/the-anti-federalist-papers/the-virginia-plan-(may-29).php