In Praise of Alexander Hamilton Part IV

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Subtitle: The Federal Convention June 7th – June 15th.

“If we are to be considered as a nation, all State distinctions must be abolished; the whole must be thrown into a hotchpot and when an equal division is made, then there may be fairly an equality of representation.” – New Jersey delegate William Paterson.

Today’s squib reviews the last few days of the Federal Convention leading up to Alexander Hamilton’s June 18th speech. In Part V we’ll find that, considering the previous exchanges among delegates, Hamilton was far from alone in his disdain of the States. What he shared with them was the search for a governing design adequate to America’s needs, customs and traditions.

June 7th. John Dickinson (DE) and Roger Sherman (CN) proposed State legislative election of Senators. James Madison opposed because he still defended the 6th Resolution of the Virginia Plan which provided Congressional veto of state laws. Count on State-elected Senators’ reluctance to use this essential power.

June 8th. Taming the source of trouble under the Articles of Confederation (AoC), the States, was paramount. Recall the States often ignored Congress under the AoC as they routinely missed tax requisitions, refused to abide by the peace treaty with Great Britain, made commercial compacts among themselves, and took other measures detrimental to the better good of the Union.1

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina moved to retain the Congressional veto of State laws. Under the British Government the negative of the Crown had been found beneficial, and the States are more than one nation now than the Colonies were then. There was no getting around it; the States must be kept subordinate to the nation. Given their conduct under the AoC, this was the cornerstone of an efficient national government.

James Wilson (PA) reminded delegates of the opening days of the revolution in 1775 when the people looked toward Congress as the voice of one nation. Patrick Henry famously declared, “Virginia is no more, Massachusetts is no more, Pennsylvania is not more.” Unfortunately, no sooner did state governments form than their jealousy and self-interest dominated national affairs.

“We must take our choice of two things,“ said Dickinson. “We must either subject the States to the danger of being injured by the power of the national government, or the latter to the danger of being injured by that of the States.” The fate of the Union depended on either internal or external control of the states. If internal, meaning the states somehow control themselves, it meant saving the bulk of their sovereignty. If external, either through congressional veto of state laws or military force, wave eventual goodbye to all state sovereignty.

June 9th. Paterson argued the convention gathered in pursuance of an Act of Congress and the AoC were therefore the proper basis of all the proceedings. The convention had no power to go beyond the federal scheme. A confederation supposes sovereignty in the members composing it and sovereignty supposes equality. If we are to be considered as a nation, all state distinctions must be abolished; the whole must be thrown into a hotchpot and when an equal division is made, then there may be fairly an equality of representation.

Did Paterson mean this, or did he throw a marker for what was to come when the small states threatened to leave the Union and ally with a foreign power if the large state contingent did not agree to equality of the States in the Senate?

Paterson asked if a new national government is to operate on the people and not on the States, must representatives be drawn from the people? May not a national legislature filled by the State legislatures operate on the people who elect the State legislators? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. No other amendments to the AoC were wanting than to mark the orbits of the States with due precision, and provide for the use of coercion, which was the great point. He had rather submit to a monarch, to a despot, than to a fate of proportional State representation in the Senate. He would not only oppose the plan here but on his return home do every thing in his power to defeat it there.

Perhaps Wm. Paterson anticipated what was coming.

June 11th The Committee of the Whole voted 6-5 to base Senate suffrage on the same proportional rule established for the lower house.

June 13th The Report of the Committee of the Whole on the Virginia Plan was a partial retreat from the militant nationalism of the plan as originally submitted. Of significance to this squib were deletions of the Council of Revision and the use of force against recalcitrant States. Congress still held the veto over State laws and elected the executive, now a single person.

The Convention had come a long way in a very short time.

June 14. Wm. Paterson asked, and was granted, leave to consult with other state delegations to present a purely federal plan the next day.

June 15th. The Paterson/New Jersey Plan.2 Paterson presented nine amendments to the AoC. Two of them, import duties and congressional power over commerce, were previously proposed and defeated by the states just a few years ago. Another amendment established a plural executive with authority to “call forth the power of the confederated states” to enforce the laws and treaties of the US. Had the States earlier accepted an impost and given up regulation of foreign commerce, perhaps they could have put off the AoCs’ day of reckoning, but The New Jersey Plan was too little, too late, too feeble, and too self-contradicting for a purely federal design.

Since a unicameral Congress of the States could not be trusted with sweeping authority, the New Jersey Plan didn’t pretend to grant the Union anything like the powers envisioned in the Virginia Plan.

Such were the weaknesses of Paterson’s Plan that some delegates wondered if Paterson meant it to be taken seriously. Like Alexander Hamilton a few days later on June 18th, the New Jersey Plan authors hardly bothered to defend it, and certainly not as an adequate solution to the problems of the Union. Instead, they argued that the Convention had no right to even consider changing the equality of states under the Confederation. They said the Virginia Plan was not only illegitimate; it didn’t stand a chance of ratification.

The unmistakeable message behind the smoke of the New Jersey Plan was this: Go ahead and keep the Virginia Plan’s proportional representation in the Senate. We, the small states, will accept no powers beyond those of modest import taxation and regulation of external commerce. To the small States, their sovereignty trumped keeping the Union.

1. See James Madison’s April 1787 Vices of the Political System of the United States.
2. See Whatever Happened to the Articles of Confederation Part V.

Rakove, J. N. (1996). Original Meanings – Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York : Random House.
Rossiter, C. (1966). 1787 The Grand Convention. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.