When the Virginia Plan was presented in the opening days of the Convention, one feature in particular seemed to be lit up like a neon sign to most of the delegates present, leaving the other provisions in the shadows. The second resolution specified “that the rights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned 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 attention of the delegates was focused like a laser on the question of the relative political importance of each state.
Both sides in this epic contest had surveyed the field in advance of the battle and strategized over the best way to come out victorious. According to Madison’s records, Pennsylvania’s delegates had wanted to introduce proportional suffrage into the voting within the Constitutional Convention. If the large states were given their proportional weight when framing the Constitution, then they could easily outvote the small states on this and other questions. The Pennsylvanians felt certain that the small states could be forced into accepting this change, but the Virginians convinced them that they should not risk creating a hostile environment from the outset. If the small states were humiliated and bullied before they had even established the rules for the Convention, they may never come around to see the reasonableness of changing the method of apportionment in the Constitution. Instead, Virginia’s strategy was to arrive on the scene with a plan that established a change in representation (the Virginia Plan), and all the large states could coalesce around this plan. Consequently, the Convention retained the same one-state, one-vote rule that operated in the Confederation Congress. They hoped (optimistically) that with this magnanimous gesture the small states would eventually be persuaded, “in the course of the deliberations, to give up their equality for the sake of an effective government.”
The small states had also planted a few tricks up their sleeves. When the delegates began the routine business of examining each member’s credentials on the very first day, May 25, “it was noticed that those from Delaware were prohibited from changing the article in the Confederation establishing an equality of votes among the states.” This trick had been planned in advance and was deployed almost immediately. On May 29, the first day that the Virginia Plan was being discussed in the Committee of the Whole, the large states tried to establish the principle of a proportional rule of suffrage in the new Congress. Madison reported (optimistically) that the proposed change was “generally relished” and “would have been agreed to when . . .” their momentum was halted by Delaware’s George Read.
Read reminded “the committee that the deputies from Delaware were restrained by their commission from assenting to any change of the rule of suffrage, and in case such a change should be fixed on, it might become their duty to retire from the Convention.” This tactic caused the Convention to postpone any further discussion of the subject. This dramatic standoff was the culmination of a little forethought and subterfuge on the part of Delaware, since it was Read himself who had ensured that the prohibition would be included in his state’s credentials. As he explained to his colleague, John Dickinson, months before the Convention: the prohibition “occurred to me, as a prudent measure.” Read feared that their state might find themselves outgunned in the Convention, and that “the argument or oratory of the smaller State commissioners will avail little.” He therefore wished to have more leverage against the large states, and his professed “duty” to abide by his state’s directives was no more than the application of this premeditated strategy. But although this maneuver could interrupt the large states’ own strategy, it could not defeat it.
On June 9, the resolution relating to apportionment was taken up by the Committee of the Whole at the request of the New Jersey delegates. For the next two days, the delegates staked out their respective positions. New Jersey and Delaware insisted on equal representation in both branches; the large states insisted on proportionality in both branches; and a few delegates—notably from Connecticut—urged compromise. Benjamin Franklin simply urged delegates to be less obstinate and more yielding in their positions and prefer the common good to their individual advantage.
At last, on June 11, James Wilson of Pennsylvania and Charles Pinckney of South Carolina proposed a specific rule of apportionment: that the representation in the first branch of the legislature should be according to population, counting slaves as three-fifths of free persons. This rule would inextricably tie the issues of slavery and representation, and the two issues, which are treated separately in this course, were closely bound within the debates at the Convention. This proposal passed by an overwhelming majority, 9-to-2, with only New Jersey and Delaware voting no. Two delegates from Connecticut then tried to establish that the second branch should be represented equally. That vote lost, but by a close vote of 5-to-6. Wilson and Hamilton then proposed that the second branch should be represented according to the same rule as the first (based on population and including the three-fifths ratio), and the previous vote was flipped, 6-to-5. The delegates now knew where they stood. There was strong support for proportional representation in the first house, but the contest would be focused on how to distribute representation in the second house. This close vote, after all, merely decided what would be in the report that would be proposed by the Committee of the Whole; the question of apportionment still had to run the gauntlet in the full Convention.
The small state delegates were far from admitting defeat. Before the Convention could consider the report by the Committee of the Whole, William Paterson introduced the New Jersey Plan on June 15, which left the federal arrangement little changed from the Articles of Confederation. Most notably, the legislature would retain a single house in which the states would be represented equally. Different states backed this plan for different reasons. New Jersey and Delaware were primarily interested in maintaining the equal representation in Congress. But some individual delegates from Connecticut, New York, and Maryland were set against “a departure from the principle of the Confederation, wishing rather to add a few new powers to Congress than to substitute a national government.” They clearly saw that the shift from equal to proportional representation went hand-in-hand with a shift from a federal to a national government, and they wanted none of it.
The counter-proposal by Paterson and his cohorts was seen as a direct response to the intransigence of the large states. After the New Jersey Plan was proposed, Dickinson confronted Madison, exclaiming: “You see the consequence of pushing things too far. Some of the members from the small states wish for two branches in the general legislature, and are friends to a good national government; but we would sooner submit to foreign power than submit to be deprived, in both branches of the legislature, of an equality of suffrage, and thereby be thrown under the domination of the larger states.” Madison and his companions were unmoved.
For the next few days, the debates focused on comparing the two plans of government, complete with histrionics and mutual condemnations. The Committee of the Whole made its final choice on June 19. The question was put whether they should report the Virginia Plan to the Convention rather than the New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan won by seven votes, with New York, New Jersey, and Delaware voting no and Maryland divided. The Convention had decided to use the recommended Virginia Plan—which had been modified from its original outline and given a more precise shape in the Committee of the Whole—as its basis of discussion. But the members were still free to reject or alter any part of it, and the vote that had upheld a proportional ratio in the second branch had been decided on a very slim majority.
While in the Committee of the Whole, Madison had succeeded in convincing a majority of the eleven states present at the Convention that both houses of Congress should represent the population of the states proportionally. But that majority was slim, and if the two absent states (New Hampshire and Rhode Island) had been there, it is unlikely that they would have sided with such an arrangement. Even among the states that were present, it would only take a few individual defections from Madison’s coalition before the majority shifted in the other direction. And members from both sides began expressing a willingness to compromise.
On June 21—a couple of days after the Convention decided to work from the Virginia Plan rather than the New Jersey Plan—William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut sought some clarification. He said that the main characteristic of New Jersey’s Plan was that it was designed to “preserve the individuality of the states.” The backers of the Virginia Plan, on the other hand, “did not profess to destroy this individuality altogether,” but the Plan’s opponents had accused it of having that tendency nonetheless. It was up to the Virginia Plan’s advocates, then, to prove that the states “should retain some portion of sovereignty at least” under this arrangement, even though it did not give each state “a distinct and equal vote for the purpose of defending themselves in the general councils.” In response, the large states then struggled to provide this proof and reassurance. Wilson pointed out that the Committee of the Whole had unanimously decided that senators should be chosen by the state legislatures. This agency in choosing members of the second branch would give the states, as states, considerable influence in the new government. Others, however, began to question whether this provision would be sufficient to protect individual state interests as such.