What Was the Great Compromise of 1787?

What Was the Great Compromise of 1787?

Also known as the Connecticut Compromise, the Great Compromise of 1787 was an agreement made between states during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. It helped define the legislative structure of the country, and the number of representatives each state would have under the US Constitution. 

Under the compromise, the federal legislature would be bicameral, meaning it would have two chambers or houses. Representation in the lower house would be based on state population, while the upper house would get exactly two representatives from each state. 

This is the basis for the legislative structure that exists in America today.

Historical Background

In May of 1787, delegates from the original 13 states met in the Pennsylvania State House (later known as Independence Hall) to discuss and draft improvements to the Articles of Confederation. But it quickly became apparent that most delegates wanted to create a new constitution altogether. 

While the delegates found common ground on many issues, like the idea that there should be three branches of government, they had trouble determining some of the finer details of how the government would work. Most notably, there were issues surrounding the composition and election of the Senate, which was to be the upper house of their bicameral legislative system.

Edmund Randolph of the Virginia delegation proposed that membership of both upper and lower houses should be proportional to state population. Under his plan, candidates of the lower house would be elected by the people of each state, while candidates for the upper house would be elected by the members of the lower house. This was known as the Virginia Plan.

Smaller states were against this plan, however. They feared their interests and voices would take a back seat to those of larger states. Furthermore, many were skeptical of replacing the Articles of Confederation, as the Virginia Plan would have done. So in June of that year William Paterson of the New Jersey delegation proposed a new plan. Congress would consist of a single house, where each state would have equal representation, regardless of population. The Articles of Confederation would remain in place, with a few amendments. This was known as the New Jersey Plan.

Proportional or Equal Representation?

Small states did their best to argue that they were of equal legal status to all other states, and that proportional representation would be unfair. Many in this group saw equal representation as a means of maximizing state autonomy. Some of these delegates even threatened to find foreign allies to support them instead. 

James Madison and Alexander Hamilton would come to lead the proportional representation group. They accused the small states of simply wanting more power, not freedom. And they found allies in the south. The southern states, which had been growing much more rapidly than those in the north, strongly favored representation based on population. 

After much contentious debate, delegates voted to reject the New Jersey Plan on June 19th. As discussion began to proceed with the Virginia Plan, delegates from the small states became increasingly frustrated, with some even threatening to leave. 

By July 2nd, the Convention had reached a deadlock. Should each state have an equal vote in the upper house? Or should representation be based on state population?

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The Great Compromise of 1787

Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman of the Connecticut delegation.

To solve this issue, a committee consisting of one delegate from each state was formed. This group was tasked with reaching a compromise. They submitted a report on July 5th which would become the basis of the “Great Compromise”.

The committee recommended the following:

  • Each state should have an equal vote in the upper house.
  • The lower house should have one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants.
  • Slaves count as three-fifths of a person.
  • Bills should originate in the lower house.

After weeks of continued debate, the Connecticut delegation was able to form a compromise that blended both the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. Every state would have equal representation in the Senate, and the House of Representatives would have proportional representation. Legislation regarding the federal budget and taxation would originate in the House. The delegates voted to approve the Connecticut Compromise on July 23rd. 

The large states would ultimately have the final say, however. Despite the “Great Compromise”, what would ultimately be included in the US Constitution was a modified version. The Connecticut delegation’s plan was modified to give a few more concessions to larger states.

But that doesn’t mean the compromise was a failure. Perhaps what made it most important was the fact that it allowed the Convention to move forward. Instead of breaking apart, the states were able to continue their quest to form a new government. 

But all was not settled. Many issues still had to be solved, like how to account for the almost 700,000 slaves (nearly 18% of the total population) living in America.

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