The 1787 Constitutional Convention – The New Jersey Plan Defeated

Journal Federal Cons LogoJune 19, 1787


After Madison’s critique of the New Jersey plan, the delegates rejected it.

Influences on the Constitution

As was true in past debates, the Bible did not come up once. Instead, in his oration opposing the New Jersey plan, Madison showed his vast knowledge of past and current governments. To follow my past practice, I will excerpt mentions of negative and positive models suggested by the delegates. Madison opined:

If we recur to the examples of other confederacies, we shall find in all of them the same tendency of the parts to encroach on the authority of the whole. He then reviewed the Amphictyonic and Achæan confederacies, among the ancients, and the Helvetic, Germanic, and Belgic, among the moderns; tracing their analogy to the United States in the constitution and extent of their federal authorities; in the tendency of the particular members to usurp on these authorities, and to bring confusion and ruin on the whole.

Then Madison appealed to problems with the states:

He instanced acts of Virginia and Maryland, which gave a preference to their own citizens in cases where the citizens of other States are entitled to equality of privileges by the Articles of Confederation. He considered the emissions of paper-money, and other kindred measures, as also aggressions. The States, relatively to one another, being each of them either debtor or creditor, the creditor States must suffer unjustly from every emission by the debtor States. We have seen retaliating acts on the subject, which threatened danger, not to the harmony only, but the tranquillity of the Union. The plan of Mr. PATTERSON, not giving even a negative on the acts of the States, left them as much at liberty as ever to execute their unrighteous projects against each other.
4. Will it secure the internal tranquillity of the States themselves? The insurrections in Massachusetts admonished all the States of the danger to which they were exposed. Yet the plan of Mr. PATTERSON contained no provisions for supplying the defect of the Confederation on this point. According to the republican theory, indeed, right and power being both vested in the majority, are held to be synonymous. According to fact and experience, a minority may, in an appeal to force, be an overmatch for the majority; — in the first place, if the minority happen to include all such as possess the skill and habits of military life, with such as possess the great pecuniary resources, one-third may conquer the remaining two-thirds; in the second place one third of those who participate in the choice of rulers, may be rendered a majority by the accession of those whose poverty disqualifies them from a suffrage, and who, for obvious reasons, must be more ready to join the standard of sedition than that of established government; and, in the third place, where slavery exists, the republican theory becomes still more fallacious.

Madison then referred again to the confederacies of history:

As lessons which claimed particular attention, he cited the intrigues practised among the Amphictyonic confederates, first by the Kings of Persia, and afterwards, fatally, by Philip of Macedon; among the Achæans, first by Macedon, and afterwards, no less fatally, by Rome; among the Swiss, by Austria, France and the lesser neighbouring powers; among the members of the Germanic body, by France, England, Spain and Russia; and in the Belgic republic, by all the great neighbouring powers. The plan of Mr. PATTERSON, not giving to the general councils any negative on the will of the particular States, left the door open for the like pernicious machinations among ourselves.

Finally, Madison referred to more current European experience:

It had been found impossible for the power of one of the most absolute princes in Europe (the King of France,) directed by the wisdom of one of the most enlightened and patriotic ministers (Mr. Neckar) that any age has produced, to equalize, in some points only, the different usages and regulations of the different provinces.

Speaking in response to Madison’s oration, James Wilson said:

Mr. WILSON observed that, by a national Government, he did not mean one that would swallow up the State Governments, as seemed to be wished by some gentlemen. He was tenacious of the idea of preserving the latter. He thought, contrary to the opinion of Colonel HAMILTON, that they might not only subsist, but subsist on friendly terms with the former. They were absolutely necessary for certain purposes, which the former could not reach. All large governments must be subdivided into lesser jurisdictions. As examples he mentioned Persia, Rome, and particularly the divisions and subdivisions of England by Alfred.

Although a religious man, Wilson did not appeal to the tribes of Israel for his model. Those wanting to stretch for a Christian influence might remind us that Alfred was a Christian king. However, one can’t tell from Madison’s notes what Wilson said about Alfred. Assuming Wilson came to his views due to his religion would be quite a leap.
Hamilton then countered Wilson with his own opinion of state governments – he didn’t care much for them.

Colonel HAMILTON coincided with the proposition as it stood in the Report. He had not been understood yesterday. By an abolition of the States, he meant that no boundary could be drawn between the National and State Legislatures; that the former must therefore have indefinite authority. If it were limited at all, the rivalship of the States would gradually subvert it. Even as corporations, the extent of some of them, as Virginia, Massachusetts, &c., would be formidable. As States, he thought they ought to be abolished. But he admitted the necessity of leaving in them subordinate jurisdictions. The examples of Persia and the Roman Empire, cited by Mr. WILSON, were, he thought, in favor of his doctrine, the great powers delegated to the Satraps and Proconsuls having frequently produced revolts and schemes of independence.

Eventually, the Constitution became the law of the land and ever since the states have lost more and more autonomy. Rather than this being against “the founders” wishes, we need to step back and see which founders wanted a very strong national government and which ones wanted a looser confederation. Reading through Madison’s notes, it has become clear that some delegates used Rome, Greece and the European experience as support for a strong national government and some used the same models as arguments against that strong government. At this point in Convention, no delegate grounded arguments in Christianity or the Bible.