About a month before Madison left for Philadelphia, he began to turn his thoughts from the vices of the existing Confederacy to a concrete plan for a new one. As he explained to a couple of his fellow delegates from Virginia, other states would expect “some leading propositions at least” from the Virginians. Not only was Virginia the most populous state, but it had led the charge in making the Convention a reality, and the other states would look to Virginia to take the lead once the Convention started. Acting upon that expectation, Madison said he had been “led to revolve the subject which is to undergo the discussion of the Convention, and formed in my mind some outlines of a new system.” Writing from New York, he shared these outlines with George Washington and Edmund Randolph, and he urged them to be “on the ground in due time” before the Convention in Philadelphia. He was hoping the Virginians could meet before the Convention opened, so that they could harmonize their opinions and present a unified front when they introduced their “leading propositions” to replace the Articles. Madison himself arrived nearly two weeks before the Convention was scheduled to open; he was on the scene earlier than any other delegate except the ones who lived in Philadelphia.
The outlines of the plan that Madison shared with his Virginian colleagues was a radical departure from both the letter and the “spirit” of the Articles of Confederation. Edmund Randolph, Virginia’s governor, had already confided to Madison some more timid and tepid changes he had in mind, that would be grafted on to the existing Articles. Madison, however, had a complete overhaul in mind: “In truth my ideas of a reform strike so deeply at the old Confederation, and lead to such a systematic change, that they scarcely admit of the expedient [of piecemeal ratification].” Madison’s views, as he revealed to both Randolph and Washington, were that the state sovereignty currently existing under the Articles would need to be seriously curtailed.
The first step toward achieving this goal would be to establish a federal authority that was a real government—with a robust judiciary and executive, not merely a toothless Congress. Also, Congress should have two houses—a bicameral legislature just as most of the modern sages of government had endorsed—and each house should reflect the relative population or wealth of each state. Finally, Madison proposed giving to the national government the power to veto state laws “in all cases whatsoever.” This power Madison “conceive[d] to be essential and the least possible abridgement of the State Sovereignties.”
When the Virginia delegates finally met in Philadelphia before the Convention, they collaborated in putting the finishing touches on Madison’s proposed framework of government. But the “Virginia Plan” (as it came to be known) was unmistakably his brainchild. Nevertheless, the other delegates must have convinced Madison to tone down the wording of his most provocative proposal. Rather than giving the federal government the power to strike down state laws “in all cases whatsoever,” they changes the proposal to read: “to negative all laws passed by the several States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union.” This was a more limited power, but still a still a radical departure from the Articles of Confederation.
The Convention was scheduled to convene on May 14, 1787, but not enough delegates had arrived to open for business until May 25. The first day was given over to electing officers and establishing a committee for formulating the rules the Convention would follow. To no one’s surprise, George Washington was unanimously elected president of the Convention. The Convention agreed to a set of rules the following Monday and Tuesday, May 28 and 29. Many of the rules followed standard parliamentary procedure, and the many delegates who had already served in Congress would have been familiar with them. However, there were a few noteworthy clauses inserted to facilitate the unique challenges of their undertaking. The delegates were clearly attempting to create a deliberative environment that would free its participants to compromise and change their minds when needed. It was therefore decided that the yeas and nays could not be called individually, but only by state, so that the participants’ names would never be attached to the particular votes in the records. Also, propositions that had once been decided by a majority vote could be reopened and reconsidered.
Most striking, it was decided “that nothing spoken in the House be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave.” In other words, the Framers would be bound by a strict code of secrecy for the entirety of the summer. Most of the newspapers at the time seemed to accept this decision as a reasonable exception to the general democratic principle of transparency in public affairs. But Jefferson, who was in France at the time, later fulminated that that the secrecy had been an abominable precedent. The delegates took this rule very seriously—they know it was crucial to their own success. A few false reports circulated in the press and there were a few inconsequential leaks, but by and large the American people remained in the dark about the content of the Convention’s deliberations. Late in his life, Madison confessed his belief that the Convention would never have been able to adopt the Constitution if the debates had been public. All men want to be able to save face if they have to give up a point, and political men especially. Each of these three unique measures was designed to allow the participants the freedom to think creatively, to speak openly, and to change their minds about certain provisions without public scrutiny. They could do all this without the risk of hasty criticisms for the positions they adopted . . . or the positions they abandoned. Only the final product—the result of multiple decisions and compromises—would be subject to public review.
Finally, on the afternoon of May 29, Governor Randolph opened the real business of the summer by launching into a lengthy consideration of the sort of government they required; a list of the defects of the present system, and the danger of their current situation. He closed by reading the 15 resolutions that made up the Virginia Plan; these were presented as the remedy for what ailed them. Madison later recalled that Randolph was chosen to introduce the Virginia Plan in the Convention because he was “then the Governor of the State, of distinguished talents, and in the habit of public speaking.” The thrust of Randolph’s argument was contained (in purposely restrained wording) within the first resolution of the Virginia Plan: The Articles of Confederation had failed to achieve its stated purpose of providing for the “common defence, security of liberty and general welfare”; it therefore needed to be “corrected and enlarged” in order to accomplish these objects. The following 14 resolutions made clear that “corrected and enlarged” really meant “scrapped and replaced.”
Immediately after Randolph’s speech, the decision was made to take up the resolutions on the following day, whereupon the Convention would “resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House.” A “committee of the whole” is a sort of parliamentary fiction. Although all the members who were present would meet together, they met as if they were merely a committee, formulating a plan to “recommend” to the whole Convention. The members could take preliminary votes on all of the parts of the plan, but none of their votes would be binding, and the entire plan would be reconsidered once they “reconvened” as the Convention. This decision was made primarily to sound out the members and discover what their first impressions of the various parts of the Virginia Plan were. The Convention met as the Committee of the Whole from May 30 until June 13. During this time, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts served as president of the committee, and George Washington ceded the chair at the front of the room each morning, then resumed it each evening, as long as the Committee of the Whole was in session.
The Virginia Plan was first discussed openly on May 30. Some delegates were no doubt stunned by the breadth of the changes proposed. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina wanted to know if Randolph “meant to abolish the State Governments altogether.” Other delegates expressed doubts whether their commissions authorized them to make such radical changes to the existing Articles of Confederation. But there was no general revolt against the Plan, and no one stormed out of the Convention in righteous indignation. Other plans were submitted over the course of that summer—the young Charles Pinckney submitted his own plan on the first day (sadly, no authoritative copy of that plan survives), and William Paterson would lead the New Jersey delegates (among others) to offer a rival plan in the middle of June, at a critical juncture in the debates. But it was Virginia’s preemptive strike that carried the day. Over the course of the summer, numerous provisions would be added, a few important ones would be rejected, and most of the remaining would at least be altered or reworded, but it was the Virginia Plan that formed the basis of all their deliberations that summer. All of Madison’s hard work had finally paid off: he had managed to frame the debate that would frame the United States Constitution.