The Virginia and New Jersey Plans and Fear of Pure Democracy

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The Virginia and New Jersey Plans:

The structure of the new legislative branch was the subject of a heated debate, as delegates from Virginia and New Jersey both submitted proposals. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which the number of representatives each state had would depend on the state’s population. The larger, more populous states supported this proposal because it would give them more power. Hence, the Virginia plan came to be known as the  “large state  plan.”

The New Jersey Plan proposed a unicameral (one-house) legislature in which all states had the same number of representatives regardless of population. This “small state plan” was, not surprisingly, the favorite of smaller states, which stood to gain power from it.

Eventually, the delegates settled on what came to be called the Great Compromise: a new Congress with two houses—an upper Senate, in which each state would be represented by two senators, and a lower House of Representatives, in which the number of delegates would be apportioned based on state population. Senators would be appointed by state legislatures every six years; representatives in the House would be elected directly by the people every two years.

The President:

The delegates had an easier time outlining presidential powers. Although some delegates had extreme opinions—Alexander Hamilton proposed a constitutional monarchy headed by an American King—most agreed that a new executive or president was needed to give the country a strong leadership that it had lacked under the Articles.

Article II of the Constitution thus outlined the powers of a new executive outside the control of Congress. The president would be elected via the Electoral College for a term of four years, would be commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, could appoint judges, and could veto legislation passed by Congress.

The Judiciary:

The judiciary branch of the new government would be headed by a Supreme Court, which would be headed by a chief justice. The structure of the rest of the federal court system, however, was not formalized until the Judiciary Act of 1789.

The Virginia and New Jersey Plans and Fear of Pure  Democracy, The Virginia and New Jersey Plans and Fear of Pure  Democracy

Checks  and Balances:

Many delegates felt that separation of powers was not enough to prevent one branch of government from dominating, so they also created a system of checks and balances to balance power even further. Under this system, each branch of government had the ability to check the powers of the others.

The President, for example, was given the power to appoint Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and foreign ambassadors—but only with the approval of the Senate. On the other hand, the president was granted the right to veto all  Congressional legislation.

Congress was given its own veto power over the president—a two-thirds majority vote could override any presidential veto. Congress also was charged with the responsibility to confirm presidential appointees—but also the power to block them. And finally,  Congress had the ability to impeach and remove the president  for  treason,  bribery,  and  other  “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The Supreme Court was given the sweeping power of judicial review—the authority to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional and thereby strike it down.

Fear of Pure  Democracy:

The delegates also feared pure democracy and considered it to be the placement of the government directly in the hands of the “rabble.” Many elements of the Constitution were thus engineered to ensure that only the “best men” would run the country.

Under the original Constitution, senators were to be appointed by state legislatures or governors, not elected by the people— in fact,  this rule did not change until the Seventeenth Amendment (1913) established direct elections for senators. Although representatives in the House were elected directly by the people, their terms were set at only two years, compared to senators’ six years. In addition, even though new legislation could be introduced only in the House, the Senate had to approve and ratify any Bills before they could become law.

These checks on pure democracy were not confined to the legislative branch. The Electoral College was implemented to ensure that the uneducated masses didn’t elect someone “unfit” for the presidency. Life terms for Supreme Court justices were also instituted as a safeguard against mob rule.

The Virginia and New Jersey Plans and Fear of Pure  Democracy, The Virginia and New Jersey Plans and Fear of Pure  Democracy

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