In May 1787, fifty-five delegates from eleven of the thirteen American states assembled in Philadelphia. Their goal was to revise the current government created by the Articles of Confederation, which had been in effect since 1781. The Articles had created a weak alliance among the states. The national government had no way to levy taxes or regulate commerce. The delegates who were in attendance at the Philadelphia convention had come in general agreement that there were defects in the Articles of Confederation that should be remedied. But instead of convening and deciding to list and remedy the defects of the Articles, the delegates at the convention took another course of action.
Soon after George Washington was elected to be the presiding officer of the meeting, the Virginia delegation, relying heavily on the draftsmanship of James Madison, presented a new plan for an entirely new national government. This plan became the main topic of debate at the convention for the next several weeks. When the delegates decided to make the Virginia Plan the focus of their agenda, they had essentially changed the task for which they had been sent to Philadelphia. The defects of the Articles took a backseat to the more pressing issue of how to design a true national government. The Virginia Plan called for a strong union of the states into a centralized national government. Under the plan, the national government would be divided into three governing branches the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.
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The legislative branch would consist of two houses. The first house would be directly chosen by the people, and the second house would be chosen by the first house from candidates nominated by state legislatures. The executive and the national judiciary would be chosen by the national legislature. The executive along with some members of the judiciary would be selected to serve on a council of revision, which would hav the power to veto acts of the legislature. The legislature would then have the power to override any veto. But the key features of the Virginia Plan included a national legislature that would have supreme power on all national matters and at least one house of the legislature that would be elected directly by the people.
The Virginia Plan was heavily favored by large states because representation in both houses would be based on population. However, delegates from small states resisted the Virginia Plan fearing that their states would always be outvoted by the larger ones. On June 15, 1787, the delegates from the smaller states, with William Paterson of New Jersey as their spokesman, presented the New Jersey Plan. The New Jersey Plan proposed to amend the old Articles of Confederation.
A single federal legislative body would still remain in place in which all states, regardless of size, had one vote. The power of the national government would be enhanced, but not as much as had been proposed by the Virginia Plan. On June 19, the first decisive vote of the convention was taken. Seven states supported the Virginia Plan, three states supported the New Jersey Plan, and one state was split. The vote proved that the majority of the delegates were in favor of a strong national government.
This caused the delegates from the smaller states to shift their strategy to ensuring that the small states could not be outvoted by the larger ones in Congress. Over the next few weeks, tensions ran high. The atmosphere was so charged that Benjamin Franklin, the oldest delegate present, proposed that each day s session begin with a prayer. An agreement could not even be reached on this matter. Upon the arrival of the Fourth of July holidays, a committee was finally appointed to meet and work out a compromise. Little is known about what action was taken in these deliberations to reach an agreement.
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It is rumored that Franklin played a great role in hammering out the plan that finally emerged. But on Monday, July 16, 1787, a plan was proposed to the entire convention that would establish a two-house legislature. Under the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, as it became known, the United States Senate became the body based on equal representation called for by the New Jersey Plan, with two senators from each state, and the House of Representatives became the body based on population called for by the Virginia Plan, with every state having at least one member. The plan was adopted with five states voting in favor of it, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina, four voting against it, Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia, and two not voting, Massachusetts and New York. After major concessions, the Great Compromise had reconciled the interests of the small and large states. The margin by which the Compromise was accepted was thin, but over time, most of the delegates from the dissenting states accepted the agreement..