Even in the 1780s, New Jersey just could not get respect. She was small and still ravaged from the war, with no bustling port, no sophisticated center of commerce and no great cultural life.
She had Princeton and the fine college there, but few who attended school in that village stayed, for there was little to do and no place to go once you were done. New Jersey, to many Americans, was just one of those places they passed through on the way to somewhere else.
Her giant neighbors, Pennsylvania and New York, took turns abusing her, slapping heavy taxes on consumer goods that passed through their ports on the way to New Jersey and draining off the state's wealth, what little was left of it.
What is now called the "Garden State" was in 1787 better known, in Ben Franklin's words, as a "keg of rum tapped at both ends."
When New Jersey's delegates showed up at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, they quickly realized that under James Madison's plan of government for the United States, which favored the large and rich states, things could get worse for them.
Tired of simply being angry, the delegates decided to get even. In the fourth week of the convention, 200 years ago today, they joined a coalition of other disgruntled delegations to introduce their plan of government to counter Madison's.
They called it "The New Jersey Plan." In essence, it was an assault upon radical change, a defense of the status quo -- and of the past. But the three days of debate that followed would force the convention to finally confront the truth -- that in its headlong drive toward a new republic, it was far ahead of popular sentiment.
The situation would force it as well to decide whether to plunge forward anyway, in spite of it.
If truth be told, Madison had it coming. In the previous week, as the convention had begun debating the shape of a new government, he and his allies had remained uncompromising in their single-minded determination to have both houses in the proposed congress based on proportional representation. The larger the state, the greater its clout would be.
Madison knew full well how drastically this would have reduced the power of New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut and the other smaller states, which wanted a congress that gave each state one vote, regardless of size. But their concerns had been treated with disdain.
On June 11, for example, Roger Sherman of Connecticut had proposed an accommodation that would create a lower house based on proportional representation and a senate that preserved an equal vote for each state. Madison and his large-state friends dismissed it, not even bothering to debate it before sending it down to defeat that day.
The New Jerseyans and their allies correctly took this as a signal of intransigence. John Dickinson of Delaware told Madison that he had "pushed things too far."
The small-state forces had been so outflanked on the issue in part because they had been disorganized. In the days before the convention, while Madison and the Virginians were caucusing to get their plan together, many of the small-staters had yet to arrive in Philadelphia. Those who had arrived, like George Read of Delaware, were busy firing off panicky letters to colleagues, urging them to get to Philadelphia immediately. "If you have any wish to assist in guarding against" the schemes of the Virginians, Read had written Dickinson, "you will be speedy in your attendance."
Had these men made common cause beforehand, perhaps their plan, not Madison's, would have seized the agenda. Now, in haste, they would try to make up for it, slapping together a plan of their own. It was a tenuous coalition, a rump group if there ever was one, each member bringing a different motive.
Robert Yates and John Lansing Jr. of New York signed on. They simply opposed any change in the status quo, and had been sent to Philadelphia by their political boss, George Clinton, the powerful governor of New York. Their state was doing quite well, thank you, with things as they stood, filling the treasury with levies from hungry residents of New Jersey and Connecticut.
Their mission was to thwart the convention, and to keep an eye on fellow-New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, the arch-nationalist.
The New Jerseyans and the men from Connecticut, who generally favored a stronger national government, wanted little to do with the New Yorkers Yates and Lansing. But to beat back Madison's scheme for proportional representation, they were willing to put their resentment against the Empire State on hold and join the coalition, along with the Delaware contingent and Luther Martin of Maryland, who was convinced that the convention was nothing less than a secret conspiracy to annihilate the states.
There were some good and wise men among this group, but on the whole, they lacked flair. No one ever described Roger Sherman as "brilliant." Solid, yes. Persevering. A pillar. But not brilliant.
The same for Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. He was a big plodder, 6 feet 2, broad-shouldered, but a plodder no less, who had once confessed that the key to his success in life was an ability to overcome his lack of imagination and culture "by exhaustive and painstaking study." Ellsworth was addicted to snuff. According to his biographers, his family could always tell how hard Ellsworth was working by the little mounds of the stuff he left behind in his study.
The caucus selected William Paterson of New Jersey as its spokesman. Unlike the Virginians, Madison and Edmund Randolph, Paterson had not been born to leadership, he had climbed to it. Paterson was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1745. His father, Richard Paterson, a tinplate worker, followed his two brothers to America in 1747, earning his living peddling pots and pans until opening a general store in Princeton, not a hundred yards from the site of Nassau Hall, home of what was then called the College of New Jersey.
The store, which prospered, included among its customers all the students at the college, including young James Madison.
William Paterson attended Princeton, and then devoted himself singlemindedly and humorlessly to financial and political advancement, to admission into what he enviously called "polished society." Ultimately he succeeded, becoming attorney general of New Jersey and building a lucrative law practice.
In the intensity of his ambitions, Paterson was no different than the Madisons and the Hamiltons of the convention. The chief difference was that he was statebound and thought small, while they were "continentalists" and thought big.
To Hamilton, for example, the Revolutionary War was a godsend, an opportunity to distinguish himself as a soldier and attract attention, which he did.
To Paterson, it was an inconvenience. When the independence movement arrived, he worried primarily about how it would affect his law practice, and waited to support independence until it was fashionable, until, according to his biographer, "even the most respectable social leaders could be found speaking out against the empire."
The New Jersey Plan, the vehicle they chose to achieve their ends, proposed that the Congress remain exactly as it was: a single house with an equal vote for each state. That was the whole point. It would be given the power to raise and collect revenue and to regulate trade and commerce. The executive branch would be several persons, rather than one, and the three presidents would be removable by the governors of the states.
Like the Virginia Plan, it would make the acts of congress supreme, capable of overriding state laws. But there was a giant and intentional loophole: the national laws would be superior to state laws, but not to state constitutions. Thus, a state could do as it pleased in the face of federal law simply by amending its constitution. That was the handiwork of Luther Martin.
By accepted 18th-century standards of good government, the New Jersey Plan was hopelessly flawed. The increased powers it granted to the proposed government were insufficient to control America's creeping anarchy, but sufficient to be dangerous if not internally checked and balanced, which they most definitely were not. Most glaringly, for example, the New Jersey Plan's legislative branch had only one house instead of two.
"In a single house," said James Wilson in his best professorial style, there is no check but "the virtue and good sense of those who compose it." Everybody, he said, knows that check is an "inadequate one."
The authors of the plan did not appear to take it seriously as a form of government either. It was, for them, a vehicle for an all-out attack on Madison's plan for proportional representation, and on the legitimacy of the convention itself.
The convention was illegal, they claimed. Look at the acts authorizing it, Lansing said. "Is it probable that the states would adopt and ratify a scheme which they had never authorized us to propose . . . ? "
"If the Confederacy was radically wrong," Paterson said, "let us return to our states and obtain larger powers, not assume them of ourselves. I came here not to speak my own sentiments, but the sentiments of those who sent me.
"Our object is not such a government as may be best in itself, but such a one as our constituents have authorized us to prepare, and as they will approve . . . . "
There was a measure of truth in these words. But it was the wrong argument, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience. It was an appeal for the convention to hold back, for fear of a popular backlash.
From Randolph, from Alexander Hamilton, from James Wilson, came the response. "With regard to the power of the convention," Wilson declared, he thought himself "authorized to conclude nothing, but . . . at liberty to propose anything . . . . With regard to the sentiments of the people," he continued, he "conceived it difficult to know precisely what they are."
As for Hamilton, he had no scruples about going ahead. "The crisis" in the country, he said, was "too serious to permit any scruples whatever to prevail over the duty imposed on every man to contribute his efforts for the public safety and happiness."
"When the salvation of the republic is at stake," Randolph said, "it would be treason to our trust not to propose what we found necessary." There are, he declared "seasons . . . of a peculiar nature where the ordinary cautions must be dispensed with, and this is certainly one of them.
" . . . The present moment is favorable and is probably the last that will offer . . . . After this select experiment, the people will yield to despair."
On June 19, the delegations cast their votes. Voting to plunge ahead with the Virginia Plan were Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Connecticut.
Voting for the Paterson plan were New York, New Jersey and Delaware. Maryland split, nullifying its ballot.
Seven to three. The New Jersey plan had not even held Connecticut. It now exited the convention. In a manner of speaking, so did Paterson, who barely opened his mouth in the following few weeks and soon departed.
The small states, however, and Luther Martin would rise again.
NEXT MONDAY: Creating the Senate