The Virginia Plan

James & Dolley Madison

The Outline for the Constitution

Madison is credited with outlining a proposal for government which became known as the “Virginia Plan.” Governor Edmund Randolph, another Virginia delegate, presented the plan to the Constitutional Convention soon after it officially opened. Key elements included:

Proportional representation in both the Senate and the House of Representatives

As Madison saw it, the most populous states, Virginia and Massachusetts, should have more influence than Delaware or Rhode Island. These small states should not have as much power to sway the course of government as the large states.

A central government that could create uniform laws where needed

The central government should have “compleat authority in all cases which require uniformity.” (James Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787). This included regulating trade, fixing terms of naturalization, and areas of oversight that should remain consistent from one state to another. Madison described this as a “positive” power.

Federal veto of state laws

If creating uniform national laws was the positive power of a federal government, vetoing state laws was a negative power. Madison thought the federal government should have authority to veto state laws in order to prevent the states from evading federal laws, violating treaties, and harassing other states. Madison described the role of the federal government as that of an “umpire” to mediate disputes and quell factions in his letter to Washington. The federal judiciary branch should have the same supremacy over state courts, and there should be some degree of central control over the militias.

Balance of powers/checks and balances

Because the federal government wields great power, it must also be organized and balanced. Madison looked at the ways the judicial, legislative, and executive branches could provide checks on each other, to prevent any one branch from becoming too powerful. In Madison’s plan, the voting public elected the lower house of the legislature; those legislators would then elect the upper house, based on nominations from the states. The two houses together would elect the president.


"Conceiving that an individual independance of the States is utterly irreconcileable with their aggregate sovereignty;...I have sought for some middle ground, which may at once support a due supremacy of the national authority, and not exclude the local authorities wherever they can be subordinately useful."

-James Madison to George Washington, April 16, 1787