The Great Compromise

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Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Great Compromise

There were two primary causes of disagreement among the delegates. One was the issue of states’ rights versus the powers of the central government. The other was the concern for equal representation for small and large states.

The Virginia Plan

With the support of James Madison, Edmund Randolph of Virginia proposed the first detailed plan for a new government. The Virginia Plan called for a bicameral legislature in which each state would be represented in proportion to its population. Randolph’s plan also included executive and judicial branches for the national government.

The New Jersey Plan

On June 16, William Patterson of New Jersey presented a second idea for the new government. The New Jersey Plan called for equal representation of all states in both houses of the legislature. The New Jersey Plan did not garner as much support as the Virginia Plan, although many of its ideas appeared in the final Constitution.

Many of the delegates were wary of any notion of direct democracy, but they did believe that since government should represent the people, it must in part be freely elected. Therefore, they agreed on a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected lower house, the House of Representatives, and an appointed upper house, the Senate. The existence of two houses meant that each would provide a check on the power of the other. To settle the question of equal representation of all the states, the delegates agreed that states would be equally represented in the Senate, with two votes for each, but proportion- ally represented in the House, with larger states having more representatives than smaller ones. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, one of only four men who attended both the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, proposed this plan, known as the Great Compromise.

Fierce debate over how to determine a state’s population ensued. Southerners wanted their slaves counted toward the total population of their states, because this would mean more representatives in the House. Northern states protested that since slaves were treated as property rather than people, with no civil rights, they should not be counted toward the total population. On July 11, the Three-Fifths Compromise established that each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person in determining a state’s population.

In August, the debate turned to national control over trade. Over southern protests, the delegates agreed to give Congress the power to pass navigation acts. Over northern protests, they agreed to prevent Congress from passing any laws restricting the slave trade until 1808. As the delegates to the Second Continental Congress had done in 1776, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention passed up a chance to resolve the issue of slavery once and for all. This surrender to compromise would prove to affect the nation more than any other issue over the next two centuries.

By September 8, the debates had drawn to a close and the convention had appointed a committee to write the Constitution in its final form. Gouverneur Morris of New York completed most of this work by September 12, and the Constitution was signed on September 17. On that day, Benjamin Franklin, the oldest of the delegates at age 81, made a speech praising the efforts of the convention and urging the delegates to join in friendship and forget their differences:

Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. . . .

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. . . .

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights Practice Test

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