The Virginia Convention of 1787: William Paterson vs. Edmund Randolph

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Like Patrick Henry, William Paterson was utterly opposed to the kind of rewriting of the Articles that Edmund Randolph had in view. For Paterson the issue was that the power and voice given to small states like New Jersey be the same in the Congress as that of large states like Virginia.

A picture of Princeton University. An archway surrounded by trees blooming with purple flowers.
William Paterson graduated from Princeton in the class of 1763, a decade ahead of James Madison. (Image: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock)

William Paterson

The most vocal opponent of Edmund Randolph’s plan was William Paterson. He was a member of the New Jersey delegation. The observant William Pierce noticed Paterson in his character sketches of the delegates and characterized him as being something of a sleeper, a man so unobtrusive that you scarcely noticed him until he had trussed you up in one of his nets.

He was one of those men whose powers break in upon you and create wonder and astonishment. At five feet two inches, with a slight build, and an aquiline nose that tapered to a receding forehead, Paterson cut no swashbuckling figure among the delegates.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

First Attorney-General of New Jersey

Irish by birth, Paterson was brought as a two-year-old to New Jersey by his immigrant parents, and graduated from Princeton in the class of 1763, a decade ahead of James Madison, where he studied with the great Samuel Davies, that Great Awakener who had so moved Patrick Henry, and who was by that point president of Princeton. Paterson became a lawyer—in fact, he became the first attorney-general of revolutionary New Jersey, and represented Somerset County in the New Jersey legislature.

Learn more about Paterson’s dissent.

Having the Same Vote in the Congress

Paterson was utterly unreconciled to the kind of rewriting of the Articles that Edmund Randolph had in view. For all the years of the Continental Congress and the Confederation Congress, small states like New Jersey had enjoyed the same vote in Congress that the large states like Virginia had, which is to say, one apiece.

In the minds of Randolph and Madison, this was absurd. A state with only 1/10 the population of Virginia was accorded equal say in national policy, and, in the case of Rhode Island, could obstruct, defy, and even veto legislation as though it had the same heft as Virginia. That kept Virginia always dancing to the tune a handful of “Rogue Islanders” would demand.

A portrait of William Paterson.
With an aquiline nose that tapered to a receding forehead, William Paterson cut no swashbuckling figure among the delegates. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Safeguarding the Small States

For Paterson, this was the only safeguard that small states like his own had against being ground up as bait by the Virginians and the Pennsylvanians. This was not because Paterson had any personal sympathy with the fast and loose money policies of state governments. “In a free government,” Paterson wrote, “men expect to live under equal and certain Laws, which operate alike on every Member of the Community.”

He wrote: “Where the guards of Property are liable to be removed at the Whim or Pleasure of the Supreme Power in a State, a Person has not any Thing that he can call his own, or is sure of for a moment.” But as Paterson listened to Randolph’s presentation on May 29, he began scribbling extensive notes, punctuated by expressions of dismay.

A Committee of the Whole

Even as Paterson scribbled, Randolph was planning to keep the initiative firmly in the hands of the Virginians by moving that the Convention resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss his plan. A Committee of the Whole is a charming parliamentary device which allows a deliberative or legislative body to convert itself into a committee.

As a committee, the usual procedural rules, then, can be relaxed—proposals can be made or withdrawn, ideas can be batted around informally, straw votes can be taken, and all without any sense that final decisions are being irretrievably made, because no such final decision could be reached until the committee once more metamorphosed itself into its convention form.

And for the next nine days, from May 30–June 8, the initiative stayed firmly in the hands of the Virginians, and the ebb and flow of discussion centered so entirely upon the Randolph proposals that any member might have wondered whether they were supposed to be the whole purpose of the Convention.

Learn more about the first great battle over the U.S. Constitution.

The Vote

In any case, if anyone had any doubt what the ultimate result of the Randolph Plan might be, Gouverneur Morris took the opportunity to make those results very clear on May 30. Here’s what Gouverneur Morris said:

That a Union of the States merely federal will not accomplish the objects proposed by the articles of Confederation, namely common defence, security of liberty, general welfare. Second: That no treaty or treaties among the whole or part of the States, as individual Sovereignties, would be sufficient. And, therefore, three: That a national Government ought to be established consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive and Judiciary.

So there it was, plain to see: one must junk the Articles of Confederation completely and invent a completely new document. There was a good deal of coughing and harrumphing, but the momentum was irresistible: a vote on Morris’s three guidelines passed with the support of six of the eight state delegations, and one tie, in the New York delegation, where Alexander Hamilton and the finicky Robert Yates disagreed; and only one negative, from Connecticut.

Common Questions about the Virginia Convention of 1787

Q: What did Edmund Randolph and James Madison think of as ‘absurd’?

Edmund Randolph and James Madison thought it to be ‘absurd’ that small states like New Jersey had enjoyed the same vote in Congress that the large states like Virginia had, which is to say, one apiece.

Q: How was Edmund Randolph planning to keep the initiative in the hands of the Virginians?

Edmund Randolph planned to keep the initiative firmly in the hands of the Virginians by moving that the Convention resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss his plan.

Q: How did William Pierce describe William Paterson?

William Pierce characterized William Paterson as being something of a sleeper, a man so unobtrusive that you scarcely noticed him until he had trussed you up in one of his nets.

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