One of the plans proposed for the structure of the United States government in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called the New Jersey Plan.
After the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the American colonies gained independence from the British and founded the United States of America.
Initially, the Articles of Confederation were used for the government of the United States, however, problems began to arise between member states over-representation, taxation, and other areas of government.
To address the concerns of the member states a Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the year 1787.
Various plans were proposed at the convention among which two gained significant support, namely the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.
The New Jersey Plan is also known as the Small State Plan was proposed by William Paterson on June 15, 1787. It contained 11 resolutions and offered a structure for the United States government.
In his proposal, Paterson recommended that all states must have equal representation irrespective of their population size.
The plan was backed by small states as they did not want to be penalized for having fewer people and wished to remain independent entities that are freely entering the United States.
The New Jersey Plan was presented in opposition to the Virginia Plan which recommended proportional representation depending on population. It was proposed by James Madison and Edmund Randolph.
The contrasting ideas in the two plans led to several debates ultimately leading to the Great Compromise where elements of both plans were merged to form the Constitution of the United States of America.
Apart from the power distribution in government, the plans also addressed matters of slavery, trade, and foreign affairs.
The forming of the Constitutional Convention is considered as one of the most significant events in US history as it directly led to the Constitution of America.
Historical Background and Context
The 13 Colonies of America fought against British Imperialism and won their freedom in 1776.
After the Declaration of Independence, the individual charters signed by each state with the English crown were scrapped and the Articles of Confederation were signed by all 13 states.
The most important principle of the Articles of Confederation was to preserve all 13 states as independent and sovereign. The Central government was given only those powers that were considered as belonging to a king or a parliament.
The Articles were considered a ‘rulebook’ for how the 13 states or ‘League of Friendship’ would be governed. It guided business, war, diplomacy, and the relations with Native Americans, however, as the United States grew bigger and bigger the limitations of the Articles of Confederation became apparent.
In 1787, an American Revolutionary War veteran called Daniel Shays staged a rebellion against the federal government. Over 4000 rebels also called Shaysites protested against economic and civil rights injustices.
Shay’s Rebellion was sparked by the increased efforts to collect taxes from citizens by the state government. Armed protestors marched near Springfield in 1786 creating chaos and unrest. The central military could not control the uprising.
The state military and a privately funded army had to be commissioned to suppress the armed rebellion.
Though the rebellion failed to overthrow the government, it did amplify the need to revise the Articles of Federation and exposed the limitations of the central government.
The Articles of Confederation were found to be inadequate in solving the nation’s problems and they were also blamed for creating a weak central government.
The Articles restricted the central government’s ability to raise taxes in order to pay off debts or pay for the military.
This was also the reason why it could not regulate foreign or interstate trade and commerce. Furthermore, the absence of executive or judicial branches meant that the Confederation government was ineffective in enforcing its laws on non-compliant states.
Various political thinkers began discussing their trade and economic issues. Slowly the momentum for the revision of the Articles grew and a meeting was initiated on May 14, 1787, called the Constitutional Convention.
The Constitutional Convention took place in the Pennsylvania State House also called the Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, at that time, was the capital of the United States of America and the Pennsylvania State House had served as a venue for many important meetings.
It was attended by delegates of the 13 states. They elected George Washington to act as president of all the proceedings.
The Two Opposing Plans
Among the several plans presented in the convention, the one presented by James Madison received positive reviews and became the most important plan considered by the delegates.
The convention was initially scheduled to only revise the Articles of Confederation, however, the resolutions of the Virginia Plan were radically different from the agreements made after independence.
James Madison had drafted the 15 resolutions of the plan before the convention with the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegates and it played a significant role in setting the agenda for debates in the meetings.
Though James Madison produced the plan, it was Edmund Randolph who presented it to the Constitutional Convention. It was also known as the Large State Plan or Randolph Plan.
James Madison suggested the construction of a robust government with three branches, namely, legislative, executive, and judicial. It was posed as the solution to prevent the interference by state governments in the national government’s authority in matters of non-compliance of the explicit rights of the Congress.
James Madison was concerned with the tyranny of the majority and wanted to prevent the manipulation of state governments by powerful interest groups. This is why he also recommended that the power to veto state laws should rest with Congress.
His plan also proposed to create two houses, the senate and the house of representatives as part of a bicameral legislature.
The plan recommended that the representatives in the lower house will be elected by the free people and the upper house will be elected by the representatives in the lower house. The resolutions also determined proportional representation in both houses.
The existence of the executive branch was to carry out the will of the legislature and was, therefore, to be selected by the legislature.
His plan also presented the population-weighted representation model wherein the number of representatives of a state in both houses will be determined by the population of the state.
This meant that larger states like Virginia and Pennsylvania would have more representatives in the houses than their smaller counterparts.
The introduction of the Virginia Plan was well received, however, the smaller states expressed concern and requested time to contemplate the resolutions of the plan.
William Paterson, the delegate from New Jersey, drafted a set of 11 resolutions to offer as an alternative to the Virginia plan.
He was chiefly concerned about the unequal power distribution between large and small states based on the weighted-proportional representation model.
The resolutions were collectively proposed by the delegates of the smaller states like New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Connecticut and they called it the New Jersey Plan.
These delegates also thought that the Constitutional Convention did not have the authority to change the Articles of Confederation completely as the Virginia Plan tried to do.
The New Jersey plan was presented on June 15, 1787, to the constitutional convention.
It was closer to the Articles of Confederation insofar that both conferred the right to one vote per state and the executive was elected by the national legislature.
Furthermore, the plan proposed a unicameral legislature with only one house and the members of the house will be chosen by the representatives of the state.
This maintained the belief that all states that entered the United States of America after the war did so freely and should remain independent entities. And the smaller states should not be penalized for their population size.
The other resolutions were regarding the naturalization of citizens under a singular policy, a policy to allow the admission of new states into the union, and the provision of prosecution of a citizen in the state where the crime was committed.
The New Jersey Plan was essentially seen as a rebuttal to the Virginia Plan. The large and the small state delegates disagreed fiercely on the resolutions set by each plan.
Both the plans presented solutions for the division of power between the branches of the government by creating an executive, judicial and legislative system and both tried to tackle the issues posed by trade, tariffs, slavery, foreign affairs, and also the procedure to elect a president.
On June 19, the New Jersey Plan was rejected and discussions carried on about the Virginia Plan. This led to great discontent among the southern state’s delegates and they threatened to withdraw from the convention.
The strong egos of the delegates and their refusal to see eye to eye made the process of settling differences and finding solutions very difficult.
Benjamin Franklin tried to cool the growing tensions between the two sides by proposing a daily prayer at the beginning of the meetings. He recommended the ritual to seek divine guidance in resolving the strong differences and urged ‘great coolness and temper’.
Alexander Hamilton proposed a plan called the Hamilton Plan to offer other solutions. It was also called the British Plan because it resembled the British system of government. However, the animosity between the large and small states continued to intensify.
Slavery had become yet another contentious issue that further divided opinions among the delegates.
25 out of the 55 delegates in the convention owned slaves. They threatened to leave the union and find other foreign allies if slavery were to be outlawed. The northern and southern states conflicted intensely over the question of the regulation of slavery by the new constitution.
Though the northern states could not get agreement from the southern states on the practice of slavery within the United States, they still fought hard to outlaw the slave trade between Africa and other parts of the world.
On July 2, 1787, a vote on the weighted-proportional representation resulted in a tie with 5 voting yes, 5 voting no, and 1 remaining undivided. The deadlock on the issue was then referred to a committee of one representative from every state to reach an understanding.
On July 5, the committee came up with a solution that sought to appease the supporters of Virginia as well as the New Jersey Plan by incorporating the demands of both in each house of the government.
The report proposed that the one vote per state principle should be applied to the upper house and each state should have 1 representative for every 40,000 citizens in the lower house.
The other recommendations that the committee made on the issues of slavery and taxes were to count 3/5ths of a slave for each citizen and allow for money bills to originate from the lower house.
The report caused six weeks of chaos before it was finally settled by a vote. The consensus thus reached came to be known as the Great Compromise of the Constitutional Convention.
Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth from Connecticut were the architects of the Great Compromise and reduced tensions between the large states and the small states by blending the New Jersey Plan and the Virginia Plan.
This plan served as the basis for the Constitution of the United States of America. The upper house or senate representation was protected by Article 5 of the Constitution further ensuring that the small states do not lose their equal representation status.
The personal diary of George Washington later revealed the significance of this event in the career of the founding fathers.