A Senate of the States: June 14th – June 18th, 1787

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June 14. William Patterson (NJ), spooked by the developing Virginia Plan, asked for a one-day adjournment to work on an improved federal design.

June 15. He submitted the New Jersey/Patterson Plan. The Committee of the Whole will take up the amended Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan tomorrow.

June 16. Since I previously blogged my observations of the New Jersey Plan here, I intended to overlook the proceedings of June 16th. However, I believe the day had an impact on the issue of proportional v. equal representation of the states in the senate and is therefore worth a look.

John Lansing (NY) and William Patterson argued against a national, republican government in favor of a strengthened confederation. Were they serious, or was it a tactic to do away with the Virginia Plan’s proportional representation in the senate? Lansing appeared quite serious. He said NY wouldn’t have sent delegates in the first place if “the deliberations were to turn on a consolidation of the States, and a National Government.” Along with fellow New Yorker Robert Yates, the two would soon abandon the convention in early July and leave NY without a voting delegation.

Lansing reasoned that congress did not authorize the convention to go beyond the federal form, meaning equality of the states in congress. Second, since the states rejected (by one state) a modest impost (tax on imported goods) power to congress in 1783, what were the chances of ratification considering the momentous changes contemplated at the convention? Lansing: “The authority of Congress is familiar to the people, and an augmentation of the powers of Congress will be readily approved by them.”

Patterson argued on similar grounds, then returned to equality amongst the states. First, federal representation, “the equal footing” of the corporate states went back to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and was well-established in the minds of the people. Indeed, the states at the present convention voted federally, in recognition of the nature of the Confederation, which was a series of treaties among them. Federalism is a logical and essential feature of the American Union.

Raw coercion, military force to impose congressional law was an unacceptable weakness of both the Virginia (for now) and New Jersey Plans. While Patterson said the states would never submit to disagreeable terms, he advocated the force of arms to coerce disobeying states. It didn’t make sense. Still, the New Jersey plan retained state authority, while the Virginia Plan largely destroyed it.

Patterson questioned the need for a bicameral congress. Yes, under the Virginia Plan one house will check the other, yet under the existing Articles and the Patterson Plan, the state delegations themselves served this purpose. In bicameral state houses, said Patterson, “where party heats prevail, such a check may be necessary. In such a body as Congress it is less necessary.”

The nub of the issue before the convention was power; the people-at-large, said Patterson, wished congress to have more of it. With proper powers, the existing congress will act with more energy & wisdom than the proposed national legislature, being fewer in number, and more secreted & refined by the mode of election. He wished to offer his plan to the states; if the states deemed it inadequate in theory or in practice, the people will clamor for further amendments.

James Wilson (PA) contrasted the principal points of the two plans. Among his observations, under the Articles of Confederation, a minority of states, often just one, regularly held sway over the others. In a confederation, it could be no other way. Under the evolving Virginia Plan, a majority of the people and states held sway.

As anxious as Wilson was for some augmentation of the federal powers, he had two issues with the New Jersey Plan. First, congress does not stand on the foundation of the people. Second, with a single house congress, he feared legislative despotism.

Monday, June 18. Young, thirty-four-year-old Alexander Hamilton presented his ideas on good government. In a radical departure from the developing Virginia and New Jersey Plans, he hammered the inadequacies and fatal consequences of both. Both relied on military force to collect taxes, which, if exercised, doomed the Union. While he doubted the longevity of an extensive republic spanning from Massachusetts to Georgia, stability was impossible as long as the states pursued their individual interests. The only way to correct the evils was with complete sovereignty in the general government. Therefore, do away with state participation. He believed republican principles, pushed to their maximum extent, could imitate the best government on earth, the British monarchy. Hold regular elections for a House of Representatives, and trust the rest of government to senators and a chief executive popularly elected to life terms.

No delegate stood to either denounce or praise Hamilton’s ideas.

Hamilton did not motion debate on his outline of government. Why, then, bring it up? Was it not a waste of time? Some, like the historian H.G. Unger, believe Hamilton’s purpose was to render, by comparison, the Randolph Plan as the best alternative between sovereignty in the states and sovereignty in a central government. 1 The New Jersey Plan was more of what had already failed, and Hamilton’s sketch resembled too much of what delegates had fought against in the Revolutionary War. Unger may be right; perhaps Hamilton’s speech influenced the course of the convention.

The Framers did not take the easy way out and adopt the inadequate New Jersey Plan. William Patterson, John Lansing, and Robert Yates made the best possible arguments for strengthening the Articles of Confederation with judicial and executive branches, and taxation/commerce powers. But their amendments did not solve the confederation’s central problems. James Wilson reminded delegates that despotism is not limited to monarchal, executive branch tyranny. Wherever power is unchecked, despotism will follow. That was his fear of Patterson’s plan; enhanced powers in a single legislative body were far more dangerous than the same powers divided between two houses.

Wilson: “If the Legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability; and it can only be restrained by dividing it within itself, into distinct and independent branches. In a single House there is no check but the inadequate one, of the virtue & good sense of those who compose it.”

I almost glossed over Wilson’s comment. While the electors to the pre-17th Amendment senate, the state legislators, represented the ‘filtered’ opinions of the people, the senate was adequately independent of the people to largely avoid the tumultuous scenes from the House of Reps, and generally kept the government within the bounds of the Constitution.

This independence is gone from the post-17th Amendment congress, in which the demagogic rants from Representative Pelosi are indistinguishable from those of Senator Schumer. To rely on the “virtue & good sense of those who compose” government rather than the structure of its institutions is, as Wilson feared, and experience shows, a recipe for tyranny.

In 1787, the people were on the edge of despair and ready to grasp any system that promised stability. The Framers had to get it right. There was little time. Design a government adequate to the exigencies facing the Union, . . . or else.

General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.
1. Unger, H. G. (2007). America’s Second Revolution – How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 57.