Virginia Plan vs New Jersey Plan

Map of Britain's American colonies
The Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan were devised to deal with the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention: Creating the Constitution

In response to the Articles of Confederation’s inadequate government system, several states decided it was important to draft a new constitution that would grant the union’s government more power. It would also ensure both the individual states and people retained many of their respective rights and liberties.

While this process may have seemed pretty simple, the reality was anything but.

From May 25th to September 17th, 1787, delegates debated several aspects of the new constitution, including slavery, the different branches of government, and what rights were protected and reserved for individual citizens (i.e., the Bill of Rights).

United States Congress
The introduction of a bicameral legislature was a controversial aspect of the Virginia Plan.

One of the more intensive debates centered around creating a bicameral legislature. In particular, this introduction into the constitution would establish both a Senate and a House of Representatives.

And while that in and of itself wasn’t an issue, what was contentious was how many votes each state would be allowed in terms of representation.

This is where the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan came into being. Below, we’ll examine what the Virginia Plan offered, what the New Jersey Plan proposed, how they compare to one another, and what the ultimate decision the Founding Fathers took between the two was.

What Is the Virginia Plan?

The Virginia Plan, also known as the “Large State Plan,” was first drafted by James Madison, a Virginian delegate. The plan argued for three branches of government (the executive, legislative, and judicial), with the legislative branch comprising the Senate and the House of Representatives.

James Madison
Founding Father, James Madison.

Creating the House of Representatives & the Senate

Compared to the original method of election for members of the Confederation Congress, who were elected by state legislature, the House of Representatives would be elected by that state’s people. 

In contrast, House members would choose the Senate from a list of nominated candidates by their state’s legislature. National legislatures would retain all of the existing powers of the Confederation Congress while also having the power to veto any state law deemed “incompetent.” 

Creating the executive branch 

The national legislature could also decide on a national executive with the authority to execute all national and executive laws, including the power to start wars or create treaties.

The national executive could also work alongside several judges to create a “council of revision,” which had the power to veto any state or national legislature and could only be overridden if the respective legislature managed to get enough votes.

Creating the judicial branch 

The plan gave the judicial branch of government oversight and jurisdiction over felonies on the high seas (such as piracy) as well as jurisdiction over enemy captures, the impeachment of an official, cases that revolved around tax collections, or any case that dealt with citizens from multiple states or foreign countries.

Supreme Court building
The judicial branch was one of three branches of government proposed in the Virginia Plan.

The plan also made state officials and officers take an oath to support the constitution while making any amendments to the constitution possible without the assent of the national legislature.

The Virginia Plan’s greatest change

The most contentious aspect of the Virginia Plan was a provision that a state’s representation, as part of the legislative Congress, should be primarily based on either the size of its population or its “quotas of contribution” (i.e., the amount of money raised via taxes to the federal government).

Regarding a state’s population, the sentiment only extended to non-slaves, meaning smaller states with a larger slave population would have less say than wealthier states or larger states with a smaller slave population. 

Because of this radical departure from the Articles of Confederation, in terms of representation (each state got a single vote regardless of its size or wealth), it was given the title “The Large State Plan.”

Why the Virginia Plan deviated so much from the Articles of Confederation 

The reason for this inclusion was that these larger states naturally carried a greater burden on them than the smaller states, both through innate size and the size of their contribution to the nation via taxes. 

Map of US
The Virginia Plan was known as the Large State Plan.

As such, it was argued that, along with the increased share of responsibility in relation to the others, larger states should have a greater degree of representation as a consequence.

Reaction in Congress

When the Virginia Plan was introduced, it understandably was argued on all sides for most of its points. In particular, when it came to its call for larger representation of Congress based on the size and wealth of the state, there was considerable dissent.

Larger states supported the plan, like Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, many smaller states opposed it, arguing that every state should have equal representation regardless of size.

Because of this inclusion in the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan was presented.

What Is the New Jersey Plan?

The New Jersey Plan, also aptly titled the “Small State Plan,” was presented by William Paterson and was created in response to the Virginia Plan. 

High Point State Park, New Jersey
William Paterson proposed the New Jersey Plan.

The plan largely opted to retain much of the inherent structure from the Articles of Confederation, including its unicameral legislature and the one vote per state status. 

It argued that, by giving too much power to the larger states, they were creating an unnecessary imbalance throughout the country, ultimately leading to larger states having greater power and sway over the union’s direction as a whole.

The New Jersey Plan’s propositions

The New Jersey Plan also included several other propositions that stood in stark contrast to the Virginia Plan.

These included: 

  • The amending of the Articles of Confederation rather than the installation of the constitution.
  • Congress receiving additional powers and authorities to regulate commerce from within the country and with other nations.
  • Congress having the authority to raise funds through taxes, tariffs, and other methods. 
  • Establishing the Articles of Confederation as the law of the land, with the ability to enforce compliance among states if needed.
  • A criminal can be convicted under the law of any state he commits the crime in, regardless of his state of origin.

Ultimately, the New Jersey Plan opted to fix many of the Articles of Confederation’s recognized issues while still attempting to maintain much of the state’s rights and state sovereignty originally granted.

How Do They Compare to One Another?

The Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan were almost complete opposites. While the New Jersey Plan essentially sought to maintain much of the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan wanted to replace it. Because of this glaring discrepancy, both plans shared almost no similarities.

Legislative representation

Arguably their biggest point of contention (so much so that one was called the “Large State Plan” while the other was called the “Small State Plan”), both the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan had two very different views surrounding representation in Congress.

I voted stickers
The Virginia Plan proposed that the lower chamber of Congress would be directly elected by the people.

The Virginia Plan argued for two branches of the legislative Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Under this new bicameral legislature, representation would be based on a state’s overall size or its “quotas of contribution” (i.e., the amount of taxes given). 

In addition, House members would be elected by the people, while The House would choose senators from nominated state legislatures.

By contrast, the New Jersey Plan argued for the retention of the Articles of Confederation’s unicameral legislature and its “one vote per state” policy. Their position was that the states were independent entities that should remain as such upon joining the union. 

As expected, this sentiment was largely shared by many smaller states, including New York, Delaware, New Jersey, and (initially) Connecticut.

The branches of government

Their second largest difference was their respective views regarding the dispersal of power and the checks and balances.

Scales of Justice
Checks and balances were a key focus of the Virginia Plan.

The Virginia Plan established both the executive and judicial branches and the existing legislative branch. 

Under the executive branch, a “National Executive” would have the power to execute national laws, make war, or establish treaties with other nations. 

The judicial branch would consist of a “Supreme Tribunal” (later known as the Supreme Court) that would hold jurisdiction over impeachments, felony crimes, or individuals that committed crimes in numerous states.

Like its stance on the legislative branch, the New Jersey Plan wanted to maintain the previous status under the Articles of Confederation, leaving much of the individual power in the hands of the states, making only slight changes. 

Congress would elect a federal executive that consisted of several people, all of which were unable to be re-elected and recalled if requested by the majority of state executives.

The plan also included its own Supreme Tribunal, which would rule strictly over impeachment cases and the last stage of appeals when dealing with national matters.

Their ultimate objectives

Both plans were largely steeped in their respective views surrounding the nation itself. While initially presented to the Constitutional Convention as a way to remedy many of the weaknesses and deficiencies attributed to the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan was determined at its very outset to completely reshape and restructure the government as a whole.

By contrast, the New Jersey Plan was developed as somewhat of a reaction to the Virginia Plan. It attempted to actively retain the Articles of Confederation while addressing many of the perceived flaws surrounding it, such as its inability to enforce compliance among the states or establish interstate commerce.

Ultimately, their overall objectives were the biggest differences in comparing the Virginia Plan vs. the New Jersey Plan. While state representation was their most glaring difference, it came down to the fact that the Virginia Plan had no intention of fixing the Articles, whereas the New Jersey Plan did.

What Was Ultimately Decided?

Despite both plans having legitimate arguments for either side, on June 19th, 1787, the New Jersey Plan was rejected, with the majority of votes going towards the Virginia Plan.

Because of this, many smaller states threatened to withdraw from the union. As Connecticut was the one state that sat divided between the two (particularly surrounding the representation given to all states), an agreement was established known as the Connecticut Compromise.

The Connecticut Compromise

Also known as “The Great Compromise of 1787”, the Connecticut Compromise was an agreement that was ultimately reached between the two parties. 

In the compromise, the bicameral legislative structure was retained from the Virginia Plan. However, it established that the House would be chosen by popular vote whereas the Senate would stay as a one vote per state policy.

Unbeknownst to the smaller states and the proponents of the New Jersey Plan, while it was agreed that Senate members would only receive one vote per state because the Virginia Plan was largely agreed upon earlier, this included senators having longer terms than state legislators. 

Consequently, senators would have much more freedom and independence than was initially considered by those against the Virginia Plan.

The End Result

Though much of the Virginia Plan was pushed through, that did not mean that some aspects of the New Jersey Plan did not make their presence known. 

They ultimately forced a level of equal representation between the states in terms of the Senate while also having many of its views regarding the judicial and executive branches be recognized.

A number of these sentiments were instrumental in forcing James Madison and others to draft the Bill of Rights, ensuring many of their ultimate fears regarding federal overreach would be greatly restricted. At the same time, state and individual liberties would largely remain protected.

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