May 31, 1787: Debate on the Legislature

Detail, color image of a portrait of Elbridge Gerry showing his face.

Elbridge Gerry by James Bogle, after John Vanderlyn, 1861.  Independence National Historical Park.

"…that the national Legislature ought to consist of two branches"

--3rd Resolution of the Virginia Plan

Thursday, May 31, 1787: The Convention Today

Working from the 15 resolves of the Virginia Plan, the Committee of the Whole:
  • Decided on a bicameral legislature
  • Agreed on election of the first house (today's House of Representatives) by the people
  • Agreed not have the second house (today's Senate) elected by the first house
  • Agreed that either house could initiate legislation
Having yesterday attempted to bypass detailed discussion of the Virginia plan in order to get
an agreement in principle on proportionate representation, and been thwarted by Read and the Delaware delegation, the Committee of the Whole went back to the Virginia Plan. Madison noted that the third Resolution calling for a bicameral (two house) legislature "was agreed to without debate or dissent, except that of Pennsylvania, given probably from complaisance to Docr. Franklin who was understood to be partial to a single House of Legislation."

The fourth proposal, popular election of the members of the first house, was more
controversial. Gerry (MA) and Sherman (CT) opposed the provision, saying, "The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy," and "the people should have, immediately, as little to do as may be about the Government." Pierce Butler simply argued that popular election was impractical. Mason (VA), Wilson (PA) and Madison (VA) supported popular election. The proposition was approved by six states, with New Jersey and South Carolina opposed and Connecticut and Delaware divided.

  • Decided on a bicameral legislature
  • Agreed (6 – 2 – 2) on election of first house by the people
  • Defeated (7 – 3) first house elected by the second house
  • Agreed that either house could initiate legislation

Delegates Today
  • William Pierce (GA) appeared and took his seat.
  • Several delegates (Robert Morris, Charles C. Pinckney, Rufus King) and their wives attended a party hosted by Nancy Shippen Livingston. Shippen Livingston's father had been Director General of Hospitals for the Continental Army, and two uncles and her father-in-law had signed the Declaration of Independence.
Philadelphia Today
  • The temperature rose markedly from the morning's 69°, and there was an afternoon thunder shower.
  • Nance Shippen Livingston hosted a party (see description above). General Washington had been invited to the bash but was otherwise engaged and did not attend.

Part of a series of articles titled The Constitutional Convention: A Day by Day Account for May 1787.

Independence National Historical Park

Last updated: July 20, 2019