James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton: Defense of the Virginia Plan

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

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

William Paterson’s New Jersey Plan created a huge problem in the Constitutional Convention. The representatives of many small states expressed their apprehensions about a powerful Federal government. The situation was not helped by the confused response of the delegates who rose to defend the Virginia Plan. Two of these were James Wilson and Alexander Hamilton who approached the matter from separate angles.

A scene from the Congress Convention.
The defenders of Virginia Plan at the Convention were themselves not in agreement, leading to interminable arguments. (Image: Howard Chandler Christy/Public domain)

The Revolt of the Small States

James Madison who took extensive notes of the convention wrote: “Nothing created more embarrassment, and a greater alarm for the issue of the Convention” than Paterson’s rival plan. “The little states insisted on retaining their equality,” while, “the large States urged that as the new Government was to be drawn from the people immediately and was to operate directly on them it was necessary that the representation should be in proportion to their size.”

Even Washington verged on despair at the revolt of the small states. “Everybody wishes, everybody expects something from the convention,” Washington wrote in a letter to a friend. And it wasn’t just short-sightedness which prevented the adoption of the Virginia Plan; it was downright bad faith, said Washington.

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

James Wilson’s Defense

James Wilson, the nearsighted Pennsylvania legal scholar, offered a patient, logical contrast of Randolph’s and Paterson’s plans. Wilson asked: “Where do the people look, at present, for relief from the evils of which they complain? Is it from an internal reform of their Governments? No, sir. It is from the National Councils that relief is expected.”

“And what, exactly, lies behind the assumption that state governments were virtuous and national governments dangerous? The smallest bodies in Great Britain,” said Wilson, “are notoriously the most corrupt. And largely because corruption is easier to pull off in small than large bodies of men.” The same principle applied to the kind of unicameral legislature that Paterson was advocating for a new Congress.

Learn more about William Paterson’s dissent.

Defending a Bicameral Legislature

“If the Legislative authority be not restrained, there can be neither liberty nor stability,” something Wilson knew all about from the experience of Pennsylvania. “It can only be restrained by dividing it within itself, into distinct and independent branches. In a single House there is no check, but the inadequate one of the virtue and good sense of those who compose it.”

On the other hand, the same principle worked in reverse when it came to an executive. “In order to control the Legislative authority, you must divide it,” but, “in order to control the Executive you must unite it. Three will contend among themselves till one becomes the master of his colleagues.”

Hamilton’s Monarchic Model

A portrait of John Hamilton.
Hamilton’s speech against the New Jersey Plan only succeeded in complicating matters. (Image: Charles Shirreff/Public domain)

But when Alexander Hamilton followed Wilson on June 18, 1787, he nearly threw the game away entirely. Hamilton had no use either for Paterson’s New Jersey Plan, or for Randolph’s. “The Virginia plan” said Hamilton, was, “but pork still, with a little change of the sauce.” He was fully convinced that no amendment that left the states in possession of their sovereignty, could possibly answer the purpose of the Convention.

Only by lodging a complete sovereignty in the general government, Hamilton said, will the American experiment in republicanism survive, and if that meant that the state governments should be, as he put it, reduced to corporations, and with very limited powers, that would be no loss at all in his book.

Then he committed the unthinkable: he proposed as a serious alternative to both plans the model of the British monarchy. “I believe the British government forms the best model the world ever produced,” Hamilton said. Hamilton then produced “a sketch of a plan which he should prefer to either of those under consideration.” And he proceeded to consume the balance of the day’s session laying it all out in detail.

Deadlock at the Convention

If anyone had wanted a stick to beat the Virginia Plan with, on the grounds that a strong national government was tantamount to monarchy, Hamilton’s speech could hardly have been better designed for their purpose. No one spoke in reply to Hamilton. No one offered a second to Hamilton’s sketch, or offered to send it to a committee. Ten days later, Hamilton left the Convention for New York. He wouldn’t be back till August.

Now began nearly three weeks of deadlocked misery in the Convention, as the partisans of the Virginia Plan—Madison, Randolph, and James Wilson, joined by the raffish Gouverneur Morris—traded one fruitless, wearying blow after another with the partisans of the New Jersey Plan: Paterson, John Lansing, and Luther Martin.

Learn more about Hamilton’s idea of the republic.

Benjamin Franklin’s Pleas

At one point, on June 28, Benjamin  Franklin felt desperate enough that he urged the Convention to get down on its knees and pray for guidance. “How has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?” Franklin pleaded. “Or do we imagine we no longer need his assistance?”

But even this plea fell short. “Several expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the convention,” it would now look like a counsel of desperation, and, “lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissentions within the convention, had suggested this measure.”

By June 30, tempers in the Convention had grown so short that James Wilson actually told the small-state opposition that they might as well go form their own confederation. Gunning Bedford retorted that if the small states really had no choice but the Virginia Plan, they “will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.” Drearily, the Convention voted on July 2 to take an extended adjournment to attend to the celebrations of the anniversary of Independence on the Fourth of July.

Common Questions about the Defense of the Virginia Plan

Q: What was James Wilson’s defense of the bicameral legislature?

James Wilson argued that a bicameral legislature was better than a unicameral one, on the grounds that a smaller body was bound to be more corrupt, and that a divided body could act as a check and balance against itself.

Q: Why did Alexander Hamilton’s suggestions almost lead to disaster for the Virginia Plan?

Alexander Hamilton suggested a more extreme version of the Virginia Plan which was modeled on the British monarchy. This proposal for a strongly centralized federal government almost jeopardized the Virginia Plan as it gave the proponents of the New Jersey Plan an opportunity to state that a powerful central government was tantamount to a totalitarian government.

Q: What was the situation in the Constitutional Convention by June 30?

By June 30, tempers were fraught, with James Wilson suggesting that the smaller states should form their own confederation, and Gunning Bedford retorted that the smaller states would look for a foreign ally rather than approve the Virginia Plan.

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