James Madison arrived in Philadelphia two weeks before the Constitution Convention convened. In his satchel, he had the outline of what would become “The Virginia Plan.” He knew how divided the Continental Congress was over the idea of convening a Constitution Convention. He knew first hand the deep division in his own Virginia Legislature. He knew that most of the delegates who came to Philadelphia would have strict instructions to agree to nothing that would diminish state sovereignty. The Continental Congress authorized the Convention to only “revise” the Articles of Confederation.
The Virginia Plan abolished the Articles of Confederation, and created a whole new form of government. By arriving early, Madison could meet and visit informally with the delegates as they arrived, and sort of “test the water” before he unveiled his radical plan. Before the Convention convened, he met with the Virginia delegation, which included George Washington. They agreed that they should introduce the Virginia Plan as ideas to “correct and enlarge” the Articles of Confederation.
No sooner had the Virginia Plan been introduced, when Pennsylvania delegate, Gouverneur Morris, pointed out that the plan neither corrected nor enlarged the Articles of Confederation, but instead, the plan abolished the Articles.
The head-on confrontation which the Virginia delegation hoped to avoid, divided the Convention on the very first day of debate. Under the Articles of Confederation, small states had one vote, as did the large states. This arrangement created a government of states. Madison’s plan called for proportional representation in two houses of Congress, thereby giving large states many more votes in Congress than the small states. This arrangement, Madison reasoned, would create a government of the people. Of course, small states were not impressed with Madison’s reasoning.
The debate raged on for weeks during the hot Philadelphia summer. Delegates threatened to walk out of the Convention, and thus end any hope of revising the Articles. Finally, Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a compromise: delegates to the lower house of Congress should be elected on a proportional basis, but delegates to the upper house of Congress would have one vote for each state, regardless of the state’s size.
Madison, Ben Franklin, and other influential delegates opposed the compromise. Passions ran so high that the shouting almost came to blows, but when the aging and highly respected Ben Franklin rose to speak, silence fell across the room. Quietly, he reminded the delegates that the future of the union depended on their actions. He reminded them that during the War for Independence, when their army faced impossible challenges, they didn’t quit and go home. Instead, he said, they all turned to their Creator to ask for guidance and help. He reminded them that surely, if God knows when a sparrow falls, no great nation can rise without his guidance and help.
They referred the issue to a committee to refine the compromise to come up with an acceptable solution, and moved on to other issues of governance.
Alexander Hamilton, from New York, was not at all happy with the compromise, nor the Virginia Plan. He envisioned a government much like Britain’s. He was willing for the people to elect delegates to the lower house of Congress, but he wanted the Senate to be populated by aristocrats, who served for life. He wanted, not a president, but a “governor,” who served for life, chosen by aristocrats. Hamilton’s ideas were too much like the government the young nation had just defeated. His plan was soundly rejected.
New Jersey offered another alternative. This plan would have retained the one-vote-per-state concept, but would have created an executive office, appointed by Congress, and subject to recall by state governors. It would have allowed Congress to tax the states, rather than request funds, and it would have allowed the national Congress to override state laws. This plan, too, was soundly rejected.
The compromise committee proposed that the lower house be elected based on population, and that the upper house consist of two senators, selected by the states. Madison saw this as a defeat, but Washington and Franklin, both of whom preferred proportional representation in the Senate, convinced him that without this great compromise, the small states would leave the convention and the entire effort, and the Union, would fail.
This great compromise, and literally hundreds of other compromises hammered out during the summer of 1787, produced the greatest achievement in self-governance the human intellect has ever produced. This system of governance guarantees perpetual tension between the states and the central government, with the power of resolution resting in the hands of the people. This system guarantees an open door to all ideas, and provides a legislative procedure to test, refine and polish those ideas into either implementation, or oblivion.
This system allows the people to correct government’s mistakes, and reverse its decisions. But this system requires the constant vigilance of the people. History demonstrates that government – any government – left to its own pursuits, will abandon the purpose for which it is created, and seek to strengthen and enrich itself.
The Constitution created in Philadelphia in 1787 created a republic – a government that gives the people the power to keep it in check. The responsibility for its continued success rests upon the shoulders of every citizen.