Although the Constitution has been correctly identified as a “bundle of compromises,” no compromise was more essential to the success of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 than the one over state representation. It was embodied within the Connecticut Compromise, which the delegates voted to accept on July 16 after weeks of acrimonious arguments. The compromise was chiefly between delegates from the larger (more populous) states like Virginia, whose representatives had introduced a plan on May 29, and those from less populous states like New Jersey, whose representatives proposed a rival plan on June 15. The Virginia Plan would have based representation in both houses of Congress on population, whereas the New Jersey Plan proposed continuing a single branch of Congress in which states would be represented equally.
Both plans are best understood against the background of the Articles of Confederation, the government that the Second Continental Congress had proposed in 1777 and that the last state had ratified in 1781. Under this plan, state delegations met together almost as ambassadors from foreign countries in a unicameral congress with limited authority in which sovereign states were equally represented. Key matters required agreement by nine or more of the thirteen delegations, each of which had a single vote. Unanimity was required to amend the document.
Although most delegates probably arrived at the Convention believing they were there chiefly to enlarge the powers of Congress, the Virginia delegates had other intentions. James Madison helped formulate a plan, introduced early in the Convention by Governor Edmund Randolph, that not only enlarged the powers of Congress but also divided it into two houses. Under the Virginia Plan, each state would be represented in both houses according to population and/or tax contributions. The people would lend authority to the new government by electing the first branch, which would then select members of the second branch from among state nominees. The Plan further called for allowing Congress to select members of an executive and judicial branch. It contained other features, only some of which would make it into the final Constitution.
After about two weeks of debate, New Jersey's William Paterson introduced what came to be known as the New Jersey Plan, which was more concerned with modifying the Articles than proposing a new form of government. The Plan's proponents thus saw no reason to depart from a unicameral Congress in which states would be represented equally. They were willing to concede both the need for greater congressional powers, which would be superior to those of the states in cases of conflict, and for three branches of government.
Although initially defeated, the provisions of the New Jersey Plan continued to serve as a rallying point for those who opposed the Virginia Plan. Indeed, the most heated point of contention at the Convention centered on the issue of state representation. On June 28, Benjamin Franklin, who favored compromise, proposed that the Convention should begin each day with prayer. On June 30, Gunning Bedford of New Jersey observed that if the large states failed to accommodate them, the small states “will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice” ( Farrand 1966, Vol. 1, 492 ). He was further quoted as saying, “I do not, gentlemen, trust you. If you possess the power, the abuse of it could not be checked; and what then would prevent you from exercising it to our destruction?” ( Farrand 1966, Vol. 1, 500 ).
After the state delegations split 5–5–1 on July 2 over the issue of representation, the Convention created a committee of eleven people, chaired by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Drawing from earlier suggestions ( one of which Connecticut's Roger Sherman had introduced on May 31
The ultimate vote on this issue took place on July 16. Connecticut's Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth (as well as Abraham Baldwin of Georgia, who had been born in Connecticut) were particularly influential in the original compromise, which is accordingly often named after their state delegation. Because it was so consequential, scholars often call it the Great Compromise. Madison reported that a number of delegates, chiefly from large states, met the next morning to discuss what they regarded as the intransigence of the small states and ultimately decided that they needed to yield on this point. He further observed: “It is probable that the result of this consultation satisfied the smaller States that they had nothing to apprehend from a Union of the larger, in any plan whatever agst. the equality of votes in the 2d. branch” ( Farrand 1966, Vol. 2, 20 ). The compromise certainly changed the general tenor of debate from that point forward, and many other compromises, like those between slave-holding and non-slave-holding states, seemed to fall more readily into place.
Sherman's initial attempt to entrench the equal state suffrage provision against change failed on September 15, just two days before delegates would sign the document. Later in the day, however, Morris of Pennsylvania succeeded in getting approval for a provision forbidding any state of being deprived of its equal representation within the Senate without the state's consent.
The Connecticut Compromise demonstrates both that delegates often blended considerations of their states' self-interests with general principles and that the final product, though not wholly to anyone's liking, incorporated ideas from a variety of perspectives.
SEE ALSO Articles of Confederation ; Bicameralism ; Congress as a Governing Institution ; Constitution ; Constitutional Convention of 1787 ; Constitutional Government ; Madison, James ; New Jersey Plan ; Representation: Idea of ; Virginia Plan .
Farrand, Max., ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.
Rakove, Jack N. “The Great Compromise: Ideas, Interests, and the Politics of Constitution Making.” William and Mary Quarterly 44, no. 3 (July 1987): 424–57.
Robertson, David Brian. “Madison's Opponents and Constitutional Design.” The American Political Science Review 99, no. 2 (May 2005): 225–43.
Roche, John P. “The Founding Fathers: A Reform Caucus in Action.” American Political Science Review 55, no. 4 (December 1961): 799–816.
Vile, John R. The Writing and Ratification of the U.S. Constitution: Practical Virtue in Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.
Zagarri, Rosemarie. The Politics of Size: Representation in the United States, 1776–1850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.
John R. Vile
Middle Tennessee State University