How did the U.S. Constitution structure the legislative branch?

The Constitution provides for a bicameral (two chamber) legislature—the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. The Founding Fathers found their inspiration for this bicameral model from the English Parliament, which had a House of Lords and a House of Commons. However, not all members of the Philadelphia

The Capitol Building houses the U.S. Congress and Senate. The United States has a bicameral system of representatives and senators inspired by the British model of government (iStock).

The Capitol Building houses the U.S. Congress and Senate. The United States has a bicameral system of representatives and senators inspired by the British model of government (iStock).

Convention supported a two-house Congress. Some members—particularly those from less populous states—favored a one-house Congress so that they would have the same power as the larger states.

What was the Virginia Plan?

The Virginia Plan, introduced on May 29, 1787, formed the basis of the Convention and was debated word by word. The plan contained 15 resolves. It was the first plan introduced in the convention and the one that most closely resembled the convention's final product. It proposed that the powers of the federal government should be expanded to accomplish three goals: "common defense, security of liberty and general welfare." Resolve number three provided for two houses of the Congress, or a bicameral legislature. Under the Virginia Plan, the people would elect the first branch. Then, the members of the first branch would elect the second branch of the "National Legislature."

Under the Virginia Plan, the U.S. Congress would possess great power. Resolve number six granted Congress the power to negate, or veto, any laws passed by state legislatures. Resolve number seven provided Congress with the power to appoint the "National Executive" or leader of the country. Thus, under this plan, Congress, not the people, would select the national leader. Resolve number nine provided for a "National Judiciary" or a set of judges that could hear cases throughout the country.

The Virginia Plan was, therefore, a plan for the structure of the new United States government under the new Constitution being discussed in the Philadelphia Convention. It established the three branches of government—the legislative, executive, and judicial branches; it called for a bicameral legislature; and it provided that each house would be selected based on the population of the respective states, meaning that the larger more populous states would have more representatives and senators. The Virginia Plan also called for a very strong national government.

With what plan did the Virginia Plan compete?

The other major plan for the structure of the new Constitution was the so-called New Jersey Plan, proposed by William Paterson of New Jersey. This plan called for a weaker national government, only one house of Congress, and equal representation in the legislative branch. It also called for an executive and judicial branch, but those branches would clearly be less powerful than the one-house legislature.

On June 15, 1787, Paterson introduced his plan. "Can we, as representatives of independent states, annihilate the essential powers of independency?" Paterson said when introducing his proposal. He wanted a weaker central government.

Under the New Jersey Plan, Congress could only act on certain matters. Congress would elect the members of the federal executive. Congress could remove the persons of the federal executive if a majority of state leaders voted such action necessary.

Interestingly, the New Jersey Plan proposed that the laws of the U.S. Congress "shall be the supreme law of the respective States." This formed the basis for the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. The supremacy clause provides that the laws of the national, or federal, government are the supreme law of the land and trump the laws of the various states.

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