Importantly, the defenders of state prerogatives were not opposed to adding more powers to the central government, nor were they opposed to declaring those powers supreme over the state governments. Their opposition was directed at structural changes that would have reduced the states to a complete subordination. The Virginia Plan, they thought, had accomplished this complete subordination largely through the federal veto over state laws and the indefinite powers concentrated in the national government. Not all of the advocates of the New Jersey Plan were from small states: Lansing and Yates from New York and Martin from Maryland were among those leading the charge against the Virginia Plan. But those delegates who represented small states also had concerns about losing their equal vote in Congress. Some of them would later be reconciled to greater powers in the central government once they had secured an equal vote in the Senate (though none of them would become reconciled to the federal veto).
Over the next few days, the delegates debated the relative merits of the two plans. And although the New Jersey Plan would ultimately be rejected, some of its features would be incorporated into the final Constitution. Over the course of these debates, the support for indefinite powers in the central government began to erode in some members.
There were Framers who had always been suspicious of concentrating too much power in the central government. According to them, nothing short of the happiness of the people was at stake in the preservation of the states’ authority. Roger Sherman of Connecticut claimed that “each state, like each individual, had its peculiar habits, usages, and manners, which constituted its happiness. It would not, therefore, give to others a power over this happiness, any more than an individual would do, when he could avoid it.” Hugh Williamson of North Carolina seconded that opinion: “The happiness of the people depended on” the state governments. And Oliver Ellsworth developed that theme even further:
What he wanted was domestic happiness. The national government could not descend to the local objects on which this depended. It could only embrace objects of a general nature. He turned his eyes, therefore, for the preservation of his rights, to the state governments. From these alone he could derive the greatest happiness he expects in this life. His happiness depends on their existence, as much as a new-born infant on its mother for nourishment.
A strong central government might be necessary for grand objects like national defense or commerce with foreign nations and between states. But as for those little matters upon which so much of human happiness depended—the preservation of domestic peace and harmony, the protection of individual rights—these were matters that were best handled locally. Domestic policy should be determined by politicians who had a close connection to those constituents whose lives would be most affected by the laws they passed.
By this point, there were a growing number of delegates at the Convention who wanted to see a more precise enumeration of powers, and Virginia was now among the states voting in its favor. And there was good reason why some of the delegates from the larger states were beginning to have misgivings. Edmund Randolph admitted at the end of their deliberations on July 16 that “the vote of this morning”—which had given the states an equal vote in the Senate—“had embarrassed the business extremely.” Many delegates from the large states had been willing to give great powers to the central government only on condition that the states would be represented proportionally in both branches of the legislature. Now that it was clear that they had lost on that issue, some of these delegates were having second thoughts about a Congress with indefinite powers. That arrangement seemed to give too much power to the small states. By the same token, there were some members from the small states who now expressed a willingness to enlarge the powers of Congress beyond what had been outlined in the New Jersey Plan.