Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Virginia Plan: A Supreme National Government - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
Return to Title Page for Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
The Virginia Plan: A Supreme National Government - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Virginia Plan: A Supreme National Government
By May 29, the delegates had made their way through the preliminary stages of organization. The delegates from Virginia, then the most populous of the States, promptly presented to the Convention a bold design for abolishing the Articles of Confederation and substituting a national government.
Edmund Randolph, the Governor of Virginia, introduced the Virginia Plan. It consisted of fifteen resolutions that were drawn up primarily by James Madison. The first resolution criticized the operation of the Articles of Confederation. Then, in the succeeding resolutions, the Virginians proposed a new form of government for the whole nation.
They proposed three separate branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial.
The legislative branch was to have two houses—a lower house (what we now call the House of Representatives) elected by the people of the several States, and an upper house (what we now call the Senate) whose members would be chosen by the first house from among persons nominated by the State legislatures.
For both houses of the national legislature, voting was to be in proportion to the amount of money contributed by each State to the national government, or in proportion to the number of free inhabitants of each State, or in proportion to both. This system of representation would give the large, populous States control of the legislature.
The legislature was to inherit the powers of the Congress of the Confederation, and be given additional powers. It would enact laws “in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent, or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual legislation.” This new legislature would be empowered to wipe out all State laws contrary to the new articles of union. And it could use force against any State that disobeyed national policy.
As for the executive branch, the executive was to be chosen by the legislature. The Virginia resolutions did not indicate whether the executive was to consist of one person or of several persons, but it did specify that the executive could serve only one term. Also, the executive’s salary could not be altered while the executive held office. (This was a protection against the executive being threatened by the legislature with loss of salary, as colonial assemblies had done to colonial governors.) The executive, together with “a convenient number of the national judiciary,” could veto acts of the legislature. But the two houses of the legislature could overrule the executive’s veto.
The judicial branch would consist of judges chosen by the Federal legislature. It was to have one or more supreme courts and also lesser Federal courts, and would try cases of maritime law, cases involving foreigners, and cases concerning “the collection of the national revenue, impeachments of any national officers, and questions which may involve the national peace and harmony.”
Of the several other resolutions in the Virginia Plan, one required that all State officers swear to support the new constitution. Another required that the new constitution be ratified by State conventions chosen by popular vote.
The day after the Virginia Plan was introduced, Gouverneur Morris proposed that “a national Government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.” In adopting this resolution, the Convention in effect discarded the Articles of Confederation and embarked upon the task of drawing up a new constitution.
The details of the Virginia Plan remained to be debated, however, and very debatable they were. Opponents of centralization, together with delegates from the smaller States, were alarmed by the boldness and abruptness of the Virginia delegation’s proposal. Many delegates had not even arrived at Philadelphia, and as they did, opposition to the Virginia Plan increased.
Had the Virginia Plan been adopted in its entirety, the smaller States would have been overshadowed by the larger States in the new government. The national legislature would have been supreme over the executive and judicial branches of the government. The several States would have been converted into little more than provinces directed by a central government.
Even if most Americans had been willing to accept such a centralized political structure—and they clearly were not willing in 1787 to do so—its operation would have been difficult. The United States encompassed an immense area and was growing rapidly westward. Communication among the States and even within the States was still chiefly by ship or boat. There was no body of civil servants to carry on the administration of a central government. That the Virginia Plan was even seriously considered by the delegates at Philadelphia was made possible only by the high reputation of George Washington, who was known to favor the Plan, and by the skillful management of James Madison.
Thus, the leading men of Virginia in 1787 were the most vigorous advocates of political centralization. By contrast, only twelve years later, the State of Virginia adopted the famous Virginia Resolutions protesting Federal usurpations of State powers under the Alien and Sedition Acts. And it was principally James Madison who wrote both the resolutions of the Virginia Plan in 1787 and the Virginia Resolutions of 1798. In 1787, however, it seemed as though Virginia would dominate national policies. The Virginia delegation to the Convention, except for George Mason, envisioned a powerful central government in which Virginia would play a dominant role.
Two weeks passed before opponents of the Virginia Plan were ready to offer an alternative design. Meanwhile, discussion of the Virginia Plan as the basis for a new constitution advanced. On June 15, William Paterson proposed the New Jersey Plan. He was supported by his own delegation and by the delegations from Connecticut, New York, and Delaware, and by one or two delegates from Maryland. Before debate on the alternative New Jersey Plan could commence, however, the young delegate from New York, Alexander Hamilton, proposed a third plan for a new governmental system.