University of Wisconsin–Madison

Plans of Government Proposed at the Convention

At the very outset the Convention faced the issue of whether or not to work within the existing constitutional framework of the United States. If the Convention decided to do so, any amendments to the Articles would have to be approved by Congress and ratified unanimously by the legislatures of the thirteen states.

The Convention decided instead to work outside the constitutional framework. Governor Edmund Randolph proposed this constitutional revolution on 29 May in his speech presenting the Virginia Resolutions.

For the next two weeks, delegates debated the merits of the Virginia Plan. Eventually, the Convention adopted a resolution that agreed to abandon the existing federal government and create a national government. This fundamental decision was not challenged directly until 13 June.  At that point, William Paterson of New Jersey asked that consideration of the plan be delayed and that time be given “to digest one purely federal. . . .”

Through these early stages of the convention, opposition to the Virginia Resolutions had been mounting steadily. Delegates from the small states united with other delegates who were opposed to an all-powerful central government and who wanted to retain the federal structure of the Articles of Confederation.

The Convention debated the Patterson’s New Jersey Amendments on the 15th, 16th, and 18th of June. On the 19th the Convention rejected the Amendments and voted to accept the revised Virginia Resolutions by a vote of seven states to three, with one state divided. However, the next day the Convention made a concession to the opponents of a national government.

Two additional proposals offered for consideration at the convention. On 29 May the Journals of the Convention record that Charles Pinckney “laid before the House . . . the draft of a federal government to be agreed upon between the free and independent states of America.” The plan was not discussed by the Convention but was turned over to the Committee of Detail on 24 July. The document written by Pinckney has never been found, but a document in James Wilson’s handwriting has been identified as a synopsis.

On 18 June, Alexander Hamilton offered his proposal. Hamilton essentially believed that both the Virginia Resolutions and the New Jersey Amendments were inadequate. He instead proposed a system that featured life terms for the executive and the members in the upper house of the legislature. Hamilton’s plan would have essentially subsumed the states into administrative units of the national government.

For a full analysis of the proposed plans at the Constitutional Convention, an essay from our CDR, Vol. 1 will provide information on the various plans debated in Philadelphia.

The Virginia Resolutions, 29 May 1787 (pdf)

The Virginia delegates arrived in Philadelphia early, talked with other delegates as they arrived, met regularly with one another, and drafted resolutions setting forth the broad principles upon which a new constitution should be based. Not all of the Virginia delegates agreed with the principles, as the later debates in the Convention were to reveal. But, the fifteen resolutions were presented to the Convention on 29 May by the Governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph. No evidence exists as to who wrote the resolutions. Randolph’s original manuscript has never been located.

The Pinckney Plan, 29 May 1787 (pdf)

On 29 May the Journals of the Convention record that Charles Pinckney “laid before the House … the draft of a federal government to be agreed upon between the free and independent states of America.” The plan was not discussed by the Convention but was turned over to the Committee of Detail on 24 July. The document written by Pinckney has never been found, but a document in James Wilson’s handwriting has been identified as a synopsis.

The New Jersey Amendments, 15 June 1787 (pdf)

The amendments proposed by William Paterson of New Jersey were far more than “New Jersey amendments.” They represented the views of the delegates from the small states and of those delegates who were opposed to a national government or who at least insisted that the central government must retain some of the federal character of the Articles of Confederation. Nevertheless, they agreed that the central government needed more power and the proposed amendments provided for such power. On 19 June the Convention voted to reject the New Jersey Amendments and accept the amended Virginia Resolutions.

The Hamilton Plan, 18 June 1787 (pdf)

On 18 June, Alexander Hamilton in a speech proposed a very powerful national government. Hamilton essentially believed that both the amended Virginia Resolutions and the New Jersey Amendments were inadequate, particularly the latter.