July 25: Who Wrote the Virginia Plan?

On July 25, as the Convention moved gradually toward an Electoral College as the mode of choosing Presidents, Madison took a stand against appointment by Congress:  Election by the legislature was, he said,

liable to insuperable objections. Besides the general influence of that mode on the independence of the Executive, 1. the election of the Chief Magistrate would agitate & divide the legislature so much that the public interest would materially suffer by it. Public bodies are always apt to be thrown into contentions, but into more violent ones by such occasions than by any others. 2. the candidate would intrigue with the Legislature, would derive his appointment from the predominant faction, and be apt to render his administration subservient to its views.

That is the separation-of-powers argument we have encountered before and, in fact, encounter again on July 25 from Elbridge Gerry, who called election by Congress “radically and incurably wrong.” But there is a problem with Madison’s forceful claim: Election by the legislature was exactly the mechanism the Virginia Plan, which Madison is generally assumed to have authored, prescribed.

My mentor, George W. Carey, first brought the problem to my attention. One possibility, he suggested, was that Madison learned more about the separation of powers during the Convention. That is plausible. But it is the second possibility that, especially reading his July 25 speech again, continues both to vex and to intrigue: What concrete evidence, Carey asked, do we actually have that Madison wrote the Virginia Plan?

It is true that it conformed in most parts to the problems he identified in his pre-Convention “Vices” memorandum. And much of it was also laid out in a pre-Convention, April 1787 letter to Washington. Yet in that letter, Madison wrote that an Executive was necessary, but “I have scarcely ventured as yet to form my own opinion either of the manner in which it ought to be constituted or of the authorities with which it ought to be cloathed.”

It is difficult to separate Madison from the Virginia Plan entirely. But it is also difficult to attribute all its particulars to him. The July 25 debate helps show why. A great deal is at stake: His supposed authorship of the Virginia Plan is among the reasons we call Madison the “Father of the Constitution.” Yet Madison may not have written the plan that served as the template for the Convention’s debates, he lost most of the fights he picked there, and he afterward predicted the new Constitution would fail. Perhaps, as I’ve argued before, he is better described as the Constitution’s midwife than as its father. That is the sense in which John Quincy Adams, eulogizing Madison, first coined the label. He said Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, not the document’s drafting, “affixed the seal of James Madison as the Father of the Constitution of the United States.”

That is a useful reminder that the Constitution was the work of many hands, that its ratification deserves as much attention as its drafting, and that the public explanations given to it–such as those of The Federalist–reflected a public, not a personal, understanding of the document.

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