Getting to Union

Navigating Differences in the Constitutional Convention

Part III. Creating Space to Address Issues Built Trust Among the Delegates.
This Made it Possible to Work Through Big Problems Together.

Part III. Step 1. Representation


In the Constitutional Convention, there was an absolute conflict between those who wanted a national government and those who did not. Some state delegations were expressly forbidden from discussing any plan that would make states lose their equal voting rights in a national assembly. However, prior to the Convention, James Madison had written the Virginia Plan and had persuaded the Virginian delegation to support it. With regards to representation, the Virginia Plan proposed:

  • The National Legislature should consist of two branches
  • The people of each State should elect the First Branch of the National Legislature.
  • The Second Branch of the National Legislature should be elected by the First Branch.
  • The National Legislature shall elect a National Executive


The Virginians wanted representation in the national legislature to be chosen based on population. This benefited Virginia because it was the most populated of all the states. Virginia also did not think it was fair for a small state with few inhabitants to have the same voice as a large and highly populated state.


However, delegates representing small states strongly opposed making representation in the national legislature based on population. Small states thought that each state should equal one vote in the national legislature. The small states feared losing a voice in national debates, especially when it came to taxation. Since it was likely that many taxes would be raised by duties on imports (and, possibly, exports), these taxes would be felt differently in different parts of the Union. Small states worried that they would not be able to protect the interests of their citizens if their votes were not set to be equal to other states. On June 17, 1787, William Patterson presented the New Jersey Plan. This plan looked similar to the Articles of Confederation, but it strengthened the powers of Congress. It kept each state to one vote. 

The Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan wanted fundamentally different Unions. How did the delegates navigate their differences and come to an agreement, making the Union possible?

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Competing Visions for the Union

  • Strong central government
  • Two house national legislature with representation based on population
  • Confederation government, weak central government
  • One house national legislature with representation based on one vote per state


It was not obvious that the two very different visions proposed in the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan could be reconciled.  No state had ever divided sovereignty before, and it wasn’t obvious to people like Madison that such a thing was possible.

Madison regarded a Federal power to veto laws of the states as essential to the Union for this reason – someone had to decide what was in the interests of the Union, and if that power was not lodged in Congress the Union could not survive.  The state legislatures could not be trusted.  Madison ultimately lost on this point. 

The final text of the Constitution did not clearly say who would police the boundary between state and Federal power, though that job has most often fallen to the Supreme Court today.  At the time, the Convention’s willingness to abandon Madison’s proposal for a Federal power to control state law represented a really significant shift in thinking – and was the product of compromise.

Sovereignty (Optional)

Learn from some prevailing commentaries about sovereignty in colonial America that might have influenced the delegates going into the Convention. 

In sovereignty there are no gradations. There may be limited royalty, there may be limited consulship; but there can be no limited government. There must, in every society, be some power or other, from which there is no appeal, which admits no restrictions, which pervades the whole mass of the community, regulates and adjusts all subordination, enacts laws or repeals them, erects or annuls judicatures, extends or contracts privileges, exempt itself from question or control, and bounded only by physical necessity.

By this power, wherever it subsists, all legislation and jurisdiction is animated and maintained. From this all legal rights are emanations, which, whether equitably or not, may be legally recalled. It is not infallible, for it may do wrong; but it is irresistible, for it can be resisted only by rebellion, by an act which makes it questionable, what shall be thenceforward the supreme power.

How the several forms of government we now see in the world at first actually began, is a matter of great uncertainty, and has occasioned infinite disputes. It is not my business or intention to enter into any of them. However they began, or by what right soever they subsist, there is and must be in all of them a supreme, irresistible, absolute, uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summi imperii, or the rights of sovereignty, reside. And this authority is placed in those hands, wherein (according to the opinion of the founders of such respective states, either expressly given, or collected from their tacit approbation) the qualities requisite for supremacy, wisdom, goodness, and power, are the most likely to be found.

Solving the Question of Representation

By creating space to address issues, the delegates were able to arrive to a new configuration for the national legislature. They solved the question of representation this way:

  • Representation in the lower house of the national legislature would be determined by population. We now know the lower house of the national legislature as the House of Representatives.
  • Representation in the upper house of the national legislature would be based on two representatives per state. We now know the upper house of the national legislature as the Senate.

Prepare for Class Discussion

On your own paper, respond to the question below.

1. How did the Virginia Plan and New Jersey Plan present different visions for the Union?

2. How did the process of agreeing to rules to work through issues make it possible to integrate opposing visions for the American Union?  


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