James Madison’s Virginia Plan


The Second Continental Congress

The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1787 with the intent of revising the Articles of Confederation. The meetings would not be open to the public with the precautions of locked doors and sealed windows to make secrecy possible. It would be in these stifling rooms that a nation would find form and be birthed through a process of debate and compromise.

The new nation had limited powers and it was beginning to put a strain on the states. While some would tenaciously hold to a loose confederation of states during the meeting, others began to see the need for a more comprehensive system of government that would centralize powers and ease the process of governance.

Madison’s Plan

Many plans were proposed during that steamy May but the one that stood out was James Madison’s Virginia plan; a system that completely ignored the Articles. It centralized powers into a much more comprehensive federal system. Madison was working from historical precedents; one of the most versed in the tradition of government, Madison had seen the oppression that was possible when a government superseded the powers granted it by the people.

The plan consisted of three branches: the legislative, executive, and the judicial. The legislative branch would be comprised of an upper and lower house; the lower directly elected with the upper being chosen by the lower. The executive would be selected by the upper house of the legislature, and an independent federal judiciary.

Fundamental to the entire process was the concept of separation of powers. Madison believed that this was essential for the new government to survive and thrive. Noticeably absent was a Bill of Rights that was seen as unnecessary because it was the responsibility of the states.

William Patterson and the New Jersey Plan

Two weeks after Madison presented his plan William Patterson proposed his New Jersey plan. It was essentially what the convention had been called for. Patterson looked to revision rather than replacement. He proposed an increase in the powers of Congress to tax and regulate trade, the legislature would remain in one house with one vote for each state. His plan was rejected in four days.

Growing Concern and Deadlock

The majority of Congress was now committed to the replacement of the Articles. Most present agreed that there should be a more centralized government but there were sticky issues. Sectional conflicts emerged to stymie the convention. The southern states were well populated but the majority of those who lived there were slaves while some in the North grew increasing uneasy about the slaveholding elite and the power they were building.


The issue of representation proved impassible and they remained deadlocked until July 2 when a committee headed by Benjamin Franklin proposed a compromise. The states would be equal in the Upper House with two senators each. In the Lower House representation would be based on population with one slave counting as 3/5 of a person. The deadlock was broken.

A New Government

By August, after much deliberation the document was ready to sign. In the end the form they had settled on looked much as Madison had proposed: a bi-cameral house with the lower selecting the upper; an elected executive but to insulate the election an Electoral College would cast the deciding votes with the popular vote used to indicate the majority consensus; and an independent federal judiciary that would be insulated from the whims of passing administrations.