Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Federalism
Congress
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Scrapping the Confederation

Alexander Hamilton and “Complete Sovereignty”

On June 18, Alexander Hamilton delivered a day-long speech in which he criticized both the Virginia and the New Jersey Plans. Neither one, in his opinion, gave to the central government that unambiguous supremacy that it needed. He repeated the principle that many were familiar with: “Two sovereignties cannot coexist within the same limits.” And he urged that only “a complete sovereignty in the general government” would cure their evils. Many people praised his speech, but few at the Convention were willing to go to the extreme lengths which he called for. On the other hand, the majority at the Convention were also opposed to the halfway measures proposed by the New Jersey Plan. On June 19, Madison launched into a lengthy criticism of the inadequacies of the New Jersey Plan. When he had finished, the Convention voted to reject that plan—7 to 3, with one state divided—and to continue their consideration of the Virginia Plan.

Shifting Ground

For Paterson and his cohorts, however, this was only a partial defeat. Their brief rebellion had shifted the ground of the debates and slowed the momentum of their opponents. Compromise positions were urged with more earnestness. William Samuel Johnson from Connecticut said that he understood that the proponents of the Virginia Plan wished to shift “general sovereignty and jurisdiction” to the new national government, but could they show their adversaries how the states “should retain some portion of sovereignty at least”? Was sovereignty something that could be practically divided between two levels of government? But the debates at the Convention were not only about the terminology of “national,” “federal,” “sovereign,” or “supreme.” Instead, the Framers wove these clashing principles into the concrete provisions of the Constitution. Some (not all) of the delegates from small states sought to restrain national powers only so long as their equal representation in Congress was in doubt.  They were willing to grant greater powers to the central government once they had achieved equality in the Senate.  And some (not all) of the delegates from the large states wanted to concentrate power in the central government only so long as they were assured of a proportional representation in both houses of the legislature.  They began to reign in their ambitions once they had lost the fight in the Senate.  Both political interests and political principles were in play in this debate.