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This Day in History: New Jersey ratifies the Constitution

On this day in 1787, New Jersey becomes the third state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Can you believe that the state’s ratifying convention spent less than half of its 9 meeting days debating or discussing the substance of constitutional provisions!?

The lack of controversy in New Jersey is interesting, particularly given the fact that the state found an early draft of the Constitution to be a bit more difficult to swallow.

Early in the Constitutional Convention, Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia had submitted an outline of government for the Convention’s consideration. The plan was drafted by James Madison (also of Virginia) and came to be known as the “Virginia Plan.” One aspect of that plan provided for population-based representation in the Congress. Unsurprisingly, the plan was more heavily favored by the large states.

On the other side of the fence was the “New Jersey Plan.” This plan was presented by William Paterson of New Jersey not too long after Randolph’s introduction of the Virginia Plan. Paterson’s idea protected small states by retaining the concept of “one state, one vote” in Congress.

The Convention was torn between the Virginia and New Jersey visions of Congress. The large and small states simply could not agree, and their disagreement threatened to derail the entire Convention. Indeed, one delegate, Luther Martin, later described the atmosphere at this juncture, stating that the Convention was “on the verge of dissolution, scarce held together by the strength of a hair.” The division among the delegates was resolved when an agreement was forged between the small states and the large states: This agreement is often referred to as the “Great Compromise.”

The compromise created a bicameral Congress that would take ideas from both the Virginia and the New Jersey Plans: The House of Representatives was to be elected based upon the population in a state. Thus, large states would have more congressmen. At the same time, the Senate would retain the “one state, one vote” principle that was so important to the small states. Thus, in the Senate, a small state like New Jersey would have the same representation as a large state like Virginia.

New Jersey’s quick ratification of the document suggests that the Convention’s compromise was remarkably successful. Small states expected that they would be treated fairly in the new government. Without such confidence, they would have been unlikely to ratify the Constitution at all.

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