Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Competing Views of Justice, Nationalism, and Federalism

The Virginia Plan

The Virginia Plan would have proportioned both houses of the legislature according to “the quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants, as the one or the other rule may seem best in different cases.” The Virginia Plan also made many other changes that would have moved the country away from the federal arrangement that had been the design under the Articles and toward a more nationalistic arrangement. For instance, it granted broad, indefinite powers to the central government; it granted Congress a veto over state laws; and it altered the way that legislators were elected. Under the Articles, Congressmen had been chosen by their respective state legislatures. Under the Virginia Plan, members of the first branch would have been elected by the people directly, and members of the second branch would have been nominated by the state legislatures and elected by the members of the first branch. These changes would have ensured that individual lawmakers would be more independent and less beholden to the interests of state legislatures. For many of the delegates from the large states, these two features—nationalism in the central government and proportionality in the way that Congress was apportioned—went together, and the first made the second an even more important principle of justice.

Defending Proportionality

Madison was the first one to defend the position of the large states when the question of apportionment was placed before the Convention. He suggested that they establish the main principle before they get bogged down in particulars: “That the equality of suffrage established by the Articles of Confederation ought not to prevail in the national legislature; and that an equitable ratio of representation ought to be substituted.” The equality of the states had not been “equitable,” he thought, and some ratio—some not-yet-determined formula for proportionality—would render the system equitable. Members from the large states were obviously arguing in favor of the arrangement that would benefit their own states, but they were also arguing from a nationalistic perspective in which stronger national powers meant that the rule of proportionality had even greater weight as a principle of justice. 

It was James Wilson who elaborated the most detailed defense explaining why the principle of proportionality would do justice to the large states:

as all authority was derived from the people, equal numbers of people ought to have an equal number of representatives, and different numbers of people, different numbers of representatives. … Are not the citizens of Pennsylvania equal to those of New Jersey? … Representatives of different districts ought clearly to hold the same proportion to each other, as their respective constituents hold to each other…. We have been told that, each state being sovereign, all are equal. So each man is naturally a sovereign over himself, and all men are therefore naturally equal.

According to Wilson, the principle of proportionality, as applied to the present case, was based in the fact of equality. All people are naturally equal in their self-sovereignty, which is why people have equal political rights. Because people have equal political rights, states ought to be represented according to a proportion of the people residing in their states. 

Proportional By What Measure? 

Wilson’s logic was unassailable . . . but only as long as the members of the Convention were in agreement that they were in fact creating a national government. Although the more nationalistic members almost uniformly advocated in favor of some principle of proportionality, they did not all want that ratio to be based on population alone. John Rutledge, from the wealthy but medium-sized state of South Carolina, proposed that the rule of proportionality should be based on the taxes that each state paid into the national treasury: “The justice of this rule, he said, could not be contested.” But the position of some of the Southern delegates on this issue is muddied by their wish to include slaves in the rule of representation. By basing representation on taxation, Southerners would indirectly augment their representation beyond their free population (since taxation would be based on wealth, and slaves would be a part of any accounting of wealth). The issue of slavery was never far away from any discussions of representation, but that subject will be covered more fully in the next module.

Justice by Proportionality

Although the individual members may have disagreed over exactly which rule of proportionality should be applied, the language of justice permeated all their arguments. New Yorker Alexander Hamilton argued that the large states could not accept political equality with the small states because “it shocks too much all ideas of justice, and every human feeling.” The members of Massachusetts saw things the same way. Elbridge Gerry insisted that, even though he was among those who had originally agreed to the Articles of Confederation, “the injustice of allowing each state an equal vote was long insisted on.” And Rufus King contended that the equality desired by the small states would result in a government “which must be as short-lived as it would be unjust,” and he was convinced that “no government would last that was not founded on just principles.” The members from South Carolina were likewise united on this point. Pierce Butler was convinced that they could not represent either house on the basis of equality, because Americans would never “adopt a plan evidently unjust.” And Charles Pinckney agreed that “the number of inhabitants appeared to him the only just and practicable rule.” Madison emphasized the justice of this question more than anyone. He referred to proportional representation “as a fundamental principle of just government”; he called on “the small states to renounce a principle which was confessedly unjust”; and he protested that it was unreasonable that the large states were being asked to depart “from justice in order to conciliate the smaller slates.” 

Justice by Equality

This perspective of justice, however, was by no means shared amongst the whole assembly. Certain delegates from small states were no less adamant that the equal representation among the states was the only rule with justice on its side. Their arguments, however, largely depended on the assumption that what they were constructing was another federal arrangement—similar to the one they had under the Articles—rather than a consolidated national government. According to Yates’ notes of the debates, William Paterson objected that Wilson’s explanation—that proportionality was based on the political equality of all men—“is right in principle, but unfortunately for him, wrong in the application to the question now in debate.” If they were creating a simple national government, then the equality of all men would be relevant, but they were creating a confederacy: “A confederacy supposes sovereignty in the members composing it, and sovereignty supposes equality.” 

According to the proponents of equal representation, the equality among the states was not only necessary for protecting the interests of the small states, but to protect all of the state governments from being swallowed by the national government. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman “urged the equality of votes, not so much as a security for the small states, as for the state governments, which could not be preserved unless they were represented.” And Maryland’s Luther Martin “contended, at great length, and with great eagerness, that the general government was meant merely to preserve the state governments, not to govern individuals.” He concluded, based on that view of the matter, “that an equal vote in each state was essential to the federal idea, and was founded in justice and freedom, not merely in policy.” The larger states had rested their arguments in an equality of individual political rights, which Martin claimed was not relevant to a federal arrangement. Instead, “the states, like individuals, were, in a state of nature, equally sovereign and free”; therefore, these sovereign states should be granted equal representation in Congress. 

The Framers’ conflicting arguments about apportionment in the new Congress were derived from different perspectives of justice, but almost all of them believed that their own perspective was the most relevant one to the particular circumstances. Their arguments became impassioned not only because so much was at stake, but also because they thought their opponents were trying to cheat them out of what was rightfully their due. Consequently, the delegates did not merely disagree with the opposing side; many of them felt righteous indignation toward their opponents. Nevertheless, not all of the arguments and maneuvers in this debate were based in high moral principle. There was also a robust display of grandstanding, posturing, and opportunistic politicking as this issue moved through the Convention.