The Virginia Plan that was prepared by James Madison became the working model of the Constitution of the US. Being one of the closest associates of Washington and Jefferson, Madison actively takes part in the formation of the structure of the American government and defining the norms of relations between the branches of government. The main postulates of the Virginia Plan were in defense of the republican system and a bicameral legislative branch. Although the Virginia Plan served as the basis for the Constitution, its implementation would limit the rights of small states, lead to a lack of the system of checks and balances, and cause potential corruption in the legislature and federal government.
Examining Potential Outcomes of the Virginia Plan
The Virginia Plan stated that all people are born equally free and independent, having some innate natural rights that they cannot deprive their children. Among them, there are enjoying the pleasure of life and freedom, the pursuit of happiness and security, and acquiring property. Madison believed that all power belongs to the people and comes from them. The authorities should be their servants, who are always under their jurisdiction (“The Virginia Plan”). The government is established for the general benefit, as well as the protection and safety of people, country, and community. The best form of government is the one that can bring the greatest degree of happiness and security and is guaranteed against the danger of mismanagement (Rakove 25). The population has an inalienable and undeniable right to modify or abolish it in the way that would most contribute to its good. These principles are consistent with those that are declared by the Constitution regarding the rights to freedom, religion, speech, and assembly.
If the Virginia Plan could have been implemented, the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separated and different from the judiciary ones. The executors of the first two authorities should be limited by the terms of their stay and return to the environment from which they were selected (Rakove 42). The vacancies that arise should be filled through free elections from among people who have common interests with the voters. Laws passed without the consent of the representatives of the people should not be applied. The government was to be created off of the states’ populations. At the same time, the larger states could have more representatives, which was unfair to smaller states. It also meant that smaller states have less power to impact the decisions of the legislative body (Rakove 43). In this case, the right of the US citizens to participate in the legislative initiatives could not be fully realized, which would lead to debates and misunderstandings between the states and the government.
Some form of the separation of powers was implied by the Virginia Plan, but it was only similar to those accepted in the Constitution. Namely, the Congress was to include the Senate and the House of Representatives, while the number of lawmakers was to be proportionate to the size of a certain state (“The Virginia Plan”). Accordingly, the executive branch would carry out the laws to be issued by the legislative branch, and the system of courts should apply them in practice. The diffusion of power in several centers or division into several branches was perceived by Madison as a means against the tyranny of government and the usurpation of the legislature. Indeed, Broadwater states that it is a misfortune when the government forgets its obligations to citizens, and the House of Representatives tries to usurp the legislature (207). If this happened, the house of the Senate could become a healthy counterbalance to the government and double the security of citizens. In this sense, the Plan could improve the lives of Americans by guaranteeing freedom from tyranny.
While the Virginia Plan was rejected, it constituted the basis for the Constitution. According to the identified plan, there should be three branches of the government, such as judicial, legislative, and executive, which are implemented in the Constitution. However, as it was suggested by Madison, the legislature should involve both judicial and executive branches, while it should not have the systems of checks and balances (Broadwater 212). In other words, it means that the branches would not have the right to control and limit each other’s power, preventing inappropriate actions and ensuring that every branch decides properly. Without the separation of powers, the modern system would lack its objectivity. For example, if the legislative branch made a law, the judicial branch would have no power to cancel them, claiming that they are unconstitutional. Another example refers to the potential inability of the legislative branch to impeach the President in case of his or her illegal actions and decisions.
Madison viewed the state as a protection from external danger, a guardian of peace among the people, and a protector of national trade and other common interests. The federal and state governments were perceived as different agents and representatives of citizens, which were constituted with different powers and intended for varying purposes (“The Virginia Plan”). The jurisdiction of the central government of a state with a vast territory should be limited to specific powers concerning the fate of all citizens of the republic and the protection of the states. It should also take care of protecting the borders of the headquarters union, improving communications between states and their citizens by building roads, maintaining them in proper order. All other powers should remain with the governments of the federal subjects and local authorities. No other form was considered compatible with the spirit of the people and with that noble desire of the supporters of freedom to choose a form of government based on the ability of humanity to self-government. Any other form not conforming to the republican character should be rejected.
The freedom of the press is to be considered as one of the pillars of freedom that should never be restricted. People’s faith should be chosen only by reason and conviction, and not forced upon them. Tolerance should become the norm in human relations. A well-regulated militia of the people is to be perceived as the natural and safe defense of society in times of peace. Standing armies should be discarded in times of peace as they are dangerous to freedom (Bailey 127). In all cases, the armed forces should strictly obey the civil authorities. If this was a modern reality, the country could not protect its citizens from sudden terrorism attacks and other dangers, both internal and external. In addition, without a constant army, it would be impossible to help other countries with their problems, from resolving armed conflicts to recovering after the earthquakes. In this sense, the Virginia Plan would lack the necessary extent of preparedness for emergencies of different kinds.
As for the threats to freedom coming from the central authorities of the state, they stemmed from differences and divisions, which are confirmed by the history of many countries. The powers of the institutions, primarily representative, follow from the supreme power that the people possess. Bailey agreed with Madison that not strength and greatness in the world is the goal, but freedom and happiness (73). If the people are free and happy inside the country, they will be respected in the world. Indeed, all people are free and independent by their nature, having indisputable rights, which they cannot be deprived of by any contract when they enter society.
Another point of Madison’s plan is associated with the great powers of the federal government compared to the state. Namely, the powers of the legislative branch were to be shifted to the federal government, which would allow regulating the trade, use the armed forces to implement laws, and declare any law to be unconstitutional. Rationally, the majority of criticism deemed this point of the plan inappropriate since it implied little power for the state government. Based on the review of the key propositions of the Virginia Plan, it is possible to assume that its ratification could lead to corrupting the nation and turning the US into a monarchical form of government (Bailey 105). For example, the head of state could be the sole leader – the monarch, who could rule for life, and the power could be transferred by succession to the throne. It means that elections could be eliminated or become fictional, and the right for voting could turn out to become a mere formality.
The federal negative could change American life dramatically due to the option of veto. Namely, Madison suggested that the state laws could not oppose the federal ones, and the contradicting laws could be seen as if the federal legislative body had a veto right. It could also mean that the individual states faced difficulties with developing and introducing their laws. In this connection, the federal negative could make life worse since the proposal and achievement of a compromise between the state and federal levels could be much more complicated compared to the modern procedure that is identified by the Constitution.
To conclude, according to the Virginia Plan, the bicameral system of the legislature should have included two houses that were to be held to particular limits. Each of the states was supposed to be represented by legislators, who were to be identified by free residents. The critical discussion of this topic allowed revealing that such a system could be useful for large states, but smaller states could not have sufficient representation in the legislature. More to the point, even though the Plan implies the separation of powers, it lacked the system of checks and balances. Also, the federal negative and the shift of significant extent of power to the federal government from the national one could potentially lead to corruption and monarchy. Accordingly, it is possible to conclude that the execution of the Virginia Plan in the US could make the lives of its citizens worse.
Bailey, Jeremy D. James Madison and Constitutional Imperfection. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Broadwater, Jeff. “James Madison and the Constitution: Reassessing the”Madison Problem”.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 123, no. 3, 2015, pp. 202-234.
Rakove, Jack N. A Politician Thinking: The Creative Mind of James Madison. University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.
“The Virginia Plan.” United States Senate, 2020. Web.