Executing the Randolph Plan

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Gouverneur Morris’s three guidelines were passed with the support of six of the eight state delegations during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Next, the business of the Committee of the Whole was taken up not with the questions of whether to adopt the Randolph Plan, but simply how to adopt it.

A scene from the Convention showing men sitting around separate tables, holding papers.
Starting on June 11, the Committee of the Whole, one by one, began voting on Randolph’s resolutions. (Image: Howard Chandler Christy/Public domain)

Edmund Randolph’s Proposals

When the session began, one by one, Edmund Randolph’s proposals were relentlessly pushed through the Committee of the Whole’s vote. The first was that the equality of suffrage for each state mandated by the Articles would yield to representation based on size of population. Next stated that the National Legislature would have two branches, the first elected generally by the people. The first branch would be the place where all legislation would originate.

Next proposal was that the National Legislature would have authority to negative all state laws contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature. Even Madison chimed in on June 8 to say, “he could not but regard an indefinite power to negative legislative acts of the States as absolutely necessary to a perfect system.” The last proposal was that a national executive would consist of a single person, and be elected by the National Legislature.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Dissent Over Details

Even the truculent and suspicious George Read of Delaware had been persuaded that the Confederation was founded on temporary principles, and cannot last; it cannot be amended.

But these successes could not quite erase muttered suspicions and dissents over several annoying details. Edmund Randolph, for instance, was himself taken aback that his proposal for a national executive was now being converted toward a single-person office.

Learn more about the new national executive.

Amending, not Rewriting the Articles

This, he said, was the fetus of monarchy, and that muttering finally found a voice when William Paterson was at last ready to speak. “Frankly”, he said, “without any preliminaries, the whole proposal for a new national legislature based on proportional representation rather than giving each state the same vote struck at the very existence of the lesser states.”

That was not what he understood the purpose of the Convention to be. For Paterson, the Convention was formed to amend the Articles of Confederation not to rewrite the entire basis of a government.

The Convention Overstepping its Remit

Even if every wise head in the Assembly Room agreed with Edmund Randolph’s plan, that was not what the American people had called them to Philadelphia to do. Not only was the Convention overstepping its remit from the people, it was launching into seas of theory that even delegates in the Assembly Room choked on, even if quietly. Patterson said:

A confederacy supposes sovereignty in the members composing it and sovereignty supposes equality. But abolish equality of representation—make the National Congress a place where the people in general are represented, not the states, as the equal partners—and the identities of the states might as well be swallowed up. Give the large states an influence in proportion to their magnitude, and what will be the consequence? Their ambition will be proportionally increased, and the small States will have every thing to fear.

Abolish State Distinctions

The idea that Virginia or Pennsylvania should have more representation in Congress simply because they had greater populations was, for Paterson, like saying that a rich individual citizen should have more votes than an indigent one. Eventually, Paterson warned, “If we are to be considered as a nation”—instead of a confederation—“all state distinctions must be abolished, the whole must be thrown into hotchpot.”

What, he asked, was so unspeakably wrong with the current system of equal representation for each state in Congress?

“It has been said,” Paterson continued, “that if a National Government is to be formed, the representatives ought to be drawn from the people.” Well, was that goal less well served when Congress is supplied by delegates chosen by the states? Aren’t the state legislatures that choose these delegates filled by the people who choose the state legislatures?

Support for the Existing Confederacy

Paterson had no idea what was unsettling the Virginians so much, but for his part, he said, “he was strongly attached to the plan of the existing confederacy, in which the people choose their Legislative representatives; and the Legislatures their federal representatives.”

A portrait of Benjamin Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin tried to appease the delegates during the Convention for the sake of the nation. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

And not only Paterson, but all of New Jersey. With a flourish of defiance, Paterson announced that:

New Jersey will never confederate on the plan before the Committee. She would be swallowed up. He had rather submit to a monarch, to a despot, than to such a fate. He would not only oppose the plan here but on his return home do every thing in his power to defeat it there.

Paterson’s Speech Takes Effect

It had seemed until that moment that the Randolph Plan was sailing to adoption, and the Committee of the Whole would embrace it and recommend it to the Convention. But William Paterson’s speech completely altered the atmosphere in the Assembly Room.

“It has given me great pleasure,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, in a document James Wilson had to read aloud for him when the delegates assembled on Monday, June 11, “that till this point our debates were carried on with great coolness and temper.” Franklin now pleaded, “We are sent here to consult, not to contend, with each other; and declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution, never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us.”

But the waters that Paterson had roiled were too disturbed to be pacified by the oil being poured on them by old Benjamin Franklin, just as the momentum Randolph and Madison had built behind the Randolph Plan was too great to be stopped by Paterson’s speech alone.

Learn more about James Madison’s conference.

The Vote of the Committee of the Whole

Starting on June 11, the Committee of the Whole, one by one, began voting on Randolph’s resolutions, with the New Jersey and Delaware delegations almost always voting no, and enough of the others voting yes to carry them all through, now in the form of 19 resolutions to be presented to the Convention.

But William Paterson had foreseen this. And he was prepared, on June 15, when the Convention once more reformed itself into a convention, to challenge the Randolph Plan head-on with an alternative plan of his own.

Common Questions about Executing the Randolph Plan

Q: What was Edmund Randolph ‘taken aback’ about?

Edmund Randolph was himself taken aback about the fact that his proposal for a national executive was now being converted toward a single-person office.

Q: What was William Paterson’s critique about the agenda of the convention?

William Paterson‘s critique of the convention’s agenda was that it had been formed to amend the Articles of Confederation and not to rewrite the entire basis of a government.

Q: What was the stand of the delegations of New Jersey and Delaware during the voting on Randolph’s resolutions?

The delegations of New Jersey and Delaware voted no during the voting on Randolph’s resolutions.

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