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What are the differences between the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, the Hamilton Plan, and the U.S. Constitution?

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The Articles of Confederation was a plan of government for the United States after the colonists became independent from Great Britain when they won the Revolutionary War. The Articles of Confederation created a weak federal government, which caused many problems. The Americans were afraid of having a strong federal government, so they created one with limited powers. For example, the federal government couldn’t levy taxes and couldn’t make people join the military. Eventually, people realized these weaknesses needed to be addressed, so a meeting was held to write a new plan of government.

The Constitution was the new plan of government that was created. The federal government had much more power in the Constitution than it did in the Articles of Confederation. For example, the federal government could levy taxes, and there was a court system where disputes could be resolved. In the Constitution, there are three branches of government. These branches are the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The New Jersey and Virginia plans were debated regarding the structure of the legislative branch. The New Jersey Plan called for a one-house Congress with each state having equal representation in Congress. The Virginia Plan called for a two-house legislature with representation being based on the population of a state. States with more people would have more representatives than states with fewer people.

The Hamilton Plan called for the state governors to be selected by the federal government. It also called for having the chief executive and the Senators to be elected for life. This plan was similar to the plan of government that existed in Great Britain. Thus, it was also called the British Plan.

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Government under the Articles of Confederation, which lasted from 1777 to 1789, was essentially a unicameral (one-house) Congress in which each state, represented by a handful of delegates, would have one vote. There was no independent executive or judiciary, though a member of Congress served as president of that body on a yearly basis. Most important, the Congress lacked the power to tax. Under this system, states had supreme power, which proved problematic after the Revolution.

The Virginia Plan, proposed by the Virginia delegation early at the Constitutional Convention, proposed to put supreme power in the national government, which would consist of a two-house Congress, in which states would be represented proportionally to their size, a strong executive and a judiciary. This is often called the "large state" plan because the representation plan benefited the more populous states. The New Jersey plan, proposed in response by William Paterson, differed from the Virginia plan in many ways, but most importantly in that it called for a unicameral legislature, where each state would have one vote, like under the Articles.

Hamilton's plan called for eliminating states altogether and consolidating them into a unified nation. The Congress would be bicameral, and both the upper house of Congress and the executive would be in office for life. It was very similar to the British model of government, and was not seriously considered.

The Constitution was the product of many compromises, but for the purposes of this question it should just be noted that it incorporates elements of both the New Jersey and Virginia plans. The process by which this happened is often called the Connecticut Compromise because Roger Sherman of that state proposed it. It includes the three familiar branches of government, but in particular it has a bicameral legislature. In the lower house, the House of Representatives, representation is determined by the population of states. In the Senate, each state is allowed two Senators.

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