A 'Great Compromise' on State Representation
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Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.
The history of the United States Constitution is a long and interesting story that we have been telling now for several weeks. Today w e continue with the convention in 1787 where it was written. Here are Frank Oliver and Richard Rael.
Last week, we told about the most serious question facing the convention in Philadelphia. It was the question of state representation in the national government. Would small states and large states have an equal voice?
The convention could not agree on a plan. So it created a special committee to develop a compromise. The convention suspended its meetings for the July Fourth Independence Day holiday. But the special committee continued its work. When the convention re-opened, the delegates heard the committee's report. This was its proposal:
The national legislature would have two houses. Representation in one house would be decided by population. Each state would have one representative for every forty thousand people in that state. Representation in the second house would be equal. Each state would have the same number of representatives as the other states.
It was called "The Great Compromise." Delegates knew that the success or failure of the convention depended on this agreement.
The debate between large states and small states lasted for weeks.
The small states truly believed they would lose power to the large states in a national government. Several times, they threatened to leave the convention in protest.
William Paterson of New Jersey, a small state, spoke. "Some of the assembled gentlemen have made it known that if the small states do not agree to a plan, the large states will form a union among themselves. Well, let them unite if they please! They cannot force others to unite."
Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, old and in poor health, sat writing quietly during the debate. Now he asked that his words be heard. Franklin asked James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania, to read his statement.
"Why," he asked, "do the small states think they will be swallowed if the big states have more representatives in the national legislature? There is no reason for this fear. The big states will gain nothing if they swallow up the small states. They know this. And so, I believe, they will not try."
For a long time, the delegates could not agree on representation in the legislature. So they debated other parts of the proposal.
One involved the names of the two houses of the legislature. The delegates used several names. Most, however, spoke of them simply as the First Branch and the Second Branch. We will speak of them by the names used today: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Next came the questions: Who could be elected to the House and Senate? Who would elect them?
Delegates did not take long to decide the first question. Members of the House, they agreed, must be at least twenty-five years old. They must be a citizen of the United States for seven years. And, at the time of election, they must live in the state in which they are chosen.
Members of the Senate must be at least thirty years old. They must be a citizen of the United States for nine years. And, at the time of election, they must live in the state in which they are chosen.
How long would lawmakers serve? Roger Sherman of Connecticut thought representatives to the House should be elected every year. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts agreed. He thought a longer term would lead to a dictatorship.
James Madison of Virginia protested. "It will take almost one year," he said, "just for lawmakers to travel to and from the seat of government!" Madison proposed a three-year term. But the delegates finally agreed on two years.
There were many ideas about the term for senators. A few delegates thought they should be elected for life. In the end, the convention agreed on a Senate term of six years.
Next came a debate about the lawmakers' pay. How much should they get? Or should they be paid at all?
Some delegates thought the states should pay their representatives to the national legislature. Others said the national legislature should decide its own pay and take it from the national treasury.
That idea, James Madison argued, was shameful. He thought the amount should be set by the Constitution. Again, Madison lost the argument. The Constitution says that lawmakers will be paid for their services and that the money will come from the national treasury.
The question of who should elect the lawmakers raised an interesting issue. It concerned democracy. In 1787, the word "democracy" meant something very different from what it means today. To many of the men meeting in Philadelphia, it meant mob rule. To give power to the people was an invitation to anarchy.
"The people," Roger Sherman declared, "should have as little to do as possible with the government." Elbridge Gerry said, "The evils we have seen around us flow from too much democracy."
From such statements, one can see why the delegates sharply debated any proposal calling for the people to elect the national lawmakers.
Sherman, Gerry, and others wanted the state legislatures to choose national lawmakers.
George Mason of Virginia argued for popular elections. "The people will be represented," Mason said, "so they should choose their representatives." James Wilson agreed. "I wish to see the power of the government flow immediately from the lawful source of that power. . .the people."
James Madison stated firmly that the people must elect at least one branch of the national legislature. That, he said, was a basic condition for free government. The majority of the convention agreed with Mason, Wilson, and Madison. The delegates agreed that members of the House of Representatives should be elected directly by the people.
The convention now considered the method of choosing senators. Four ideas were proposed. Senators could be elected by the House, by the president, by the state legislatures, or by the people. Arguments for and against were similar to those for choosing representatives for the House.
In the end, a majority of the delegates agreed that the state legislatures would choose the senators. And that is what the Constitution says. It remained that way for more than one hundred years. In 1913, the states approved the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment permits the people to vote directly to elect the senators.
Finally, the time came for the convention to face the issue of representation in the House and Senate. The large states wanted representation based on population. The small states wanted equal representation.
The delegates had voted on the issue several times since the convention began. But both sides stood firm. Yet they knew they could not continue to vote forever, day after day.
On July fifth, the Grand Committee presented a two-part compromise based on Roger Sherman's ideas. The compromise provided something for large states and something for small states. It called for representation based on population in the House and equal representation in the Senate.
The committee said both parts of the compromise must be accepted or both rejected. On July sixteenth, the convention voted on the issue for the last time. It accepted the Great Compromise.
Our program was written by Christine Johnson. The narrators were Frank Oliver and Richard Rael.
We have more to come in the story of the Constitution. Then, in the weeks ahead, we introduce you to some of America’s early presidents. And we tell the story of the Civil War.
If American history interests you, then join us here each week for THE MAKING OF A NATION in VOA Special English. More than two hundred programs are in our series. This was number twenty-two.
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This article is about the agreement sometimes referred to as the Great Compromise. For the song by John Prine, see The Great Compromise (song).
The Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise of 1787 or Sherman Compromise) was an agreement that large and small states reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation that each state would have under the United States Constitution. It retained the bicameral legislature as proposed by Roger Sherman, along with proportional representation of the states in the lower house, but required the upper house to be weighted equally between the states. Each state would have two representatives in the upper house.
On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph of the Virginia delegation proposed the creation of a bicameral legislature. Under his proposal, membership in both houses would be allocated to each state proportional to its population; however, candidates for the lower house would be nominated and elected by the people of each state. This proposal allowed fairness and equality to the people. Candidates for the upper house would be nominated by the state legislatures of each state and then elected by the members of the lower house. This proposal was known as the Virginia Plan.
Less populous states like Delaware were afraid that such an arrangement would result in their voices and interests being drowned out by the larger states. Many delegates also felt that the Convention did not have the authority to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation, as the Virginia Plan would have. In response, on June 15, 1787, William Paterson of the New Jersey delegation proposed a legislature consisting of a single house. Each state was to have equal representation in this body, regardless of population. The New Jersey Plan, as it was called, would have left the Articles of Confederation in place, but would have amended them to somewhat increase Congress's powers.
At the time of the convention, the South was growing more quickly than the North, and Southern states had the most extensive Western claims. South Carolina, North Carolina, and the State of Georgia were small in the 1780s, but they expected growth, and thus favored proportional representation. New York State was one of the largest states at the time, but two of its three representatives (Alexander Hamilton being the exception) supported an equal representation per state, as part of their desire to see maximum autonomy for the states. (The two representatives other than Hamilton had left the convention before the representation issue was resolved, leaving Hamilton, and New York State, without a vote.)
James Madison and Hamilton were two of the leaders of the proportional representation group. Madison argued that a conspiracy of large states against the small states was unrealistic as the large states were so different from each other. Hamilton argued that the states were artificial entities made up of individuals, and accused small state representatives of wanting power, not liberty (see History of the United States Senate).
For their part, the small state representatives argued that the states were, in fact, of a legally equal status, and that proportional representation would be unfair to their states. Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware notoriously threatened on behalf of the small states, "the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice."
Elbridge Gerry ridiculed the small states’ claim of sovereignty, saying “that we never were independent States, were not such now, & never could be even on the principles of the Confederation. The States & the advocates for them were intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty.”
On June 14, when the Convention was ready to consider the report on the Virginia plan, William Paterson of New Jersey requested an adjournment to allow certain delegations more time to prepare a substitute plan. The request was granted, and, on the next day, Paterson submitted nine resolutions embodying necessary amendments to the Articles of Confederation, which was followed by a vigorous debate. On June 19, the delegates rejected the New Jersey Plan and voted to proceed with a discussion of the Virginia Plan. The small States became increasingly discontented, and some threatened to withdraw. On July 2, the Convention was deadlocked over giving each State an equal vote in the upper house, with five States in the affirmative, five in the negative, and one divided.
The problem was referred to a committee consisting of one delegate from each State to reach a compromise. On July 5, the committee submitted its report, which became the basis for the “Great Compromise" of the Convention. The report recommended that in the upper house each State should have an equal vote and in the lower house, each State should have one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants, counting slaves as three-fifths of an inhabitant, and that money bills should originate in the lower house (not subject to amendment by the upper chamber).
After six weeks of turmoil, North Carolina switched its vote to equal representation per state and Massachusetts abstained, and a compromise was reached, being called the "Great Compromise." In the "Great Compromise," every state was given equal representation, previously known as the New Jersey Plan, in one house of Congress, and proportional representation, known before as the Virginia Plan, in the other. Because it was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues/taxation, per the Origination Clause.
Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, both of the Connecticut delegation, created a compromise that, in a sense, blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small-state) proposals regarding congressional apportionment. Ultimately, however, its main contribution was in determining the apportionment of the Senate. Sherman sided with the two-house national legislature of the Virginia Plan but proposed "That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. Branch [house] should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more." Although Sherman was well liked and respected among the delegates, his plan failed at first. It was not until July 23 that representation was finally settled.
What was ultimately included in the constitution was a modified form of this plan, partly because the larger states disliked it. In committee, Benjamin Franklin modified Sherman's proposal to make it more acceptable to the larger states. He added the requirement that revenue bills originate in the house.
The final vote on the Connecticut Compromise on July 16th left the Senate looking to the Confederation Congress. In the preceding weeks of debate, James Madison of Virginia, Rufus King of New York, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania each vigorously opposed the compromise for this reason. For the nationalists, the Convention’s vote for the compromise was a stunning defeat. However, on July 23, they found a way to salvage their vision of an elite, independent Senate. Just before most of the convention’s work was referred to the Committee of Detail, Gouverneur Morris and Rufus King moved that state's members in the Senate be given individual votes, rather than voting en bloc, as they had in the Confederation Congress. Then Oliver Ellsworth, a leading proponent of the Connecticut Compromise, supported their motion, and the Convention adopted the Compromise. Since the Convention had early acquiesced in the Virginia Plan’s proposal that senators have long terms, restoring that Plan’s vision of individually powerful senators stopped the Senate from becoming a strong safeguard of federalism. State governments lost their direct say in Congress’s decisions to make national laws. As the personally influential senators received terms much longer than the state legislators who elected them, they became substantially independent. The compromise continued to serve the self-interests of small-state political leaders, who were assured of access to more seats in the Senate than they might otherwise have obtained.
Senate representation was explicitly protected in Article Five of the United States Constitution:
...no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.
This agreement allowed deliberations to continue and thus led to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which further complicated the issue of popular representation in the House.
- ^"Madison's notes, June 16 1787". Yale Avalon project.
- ^"Madison's notes, May 30 1787". Yale Avalon project.
- ^"Madison's notes, June 15 1787". Yale Avalon project.
- ^"Madison's notes, June 29 1787". Yale Avalon project.
- ^ abYazawa, Melvin (2016). Contested Conventions: The Struggle to Establish the Constitution and Save the Union, 1787–1789. JHU Press. p. 67. ISBN 978-1-4214-2026-4.
- ^ abUS Constitution.net. "Constitutional Topic: The Constitutional Convention". Retrieved October 17, 2007.
- ^1 THE RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787, at 489, 490, 551 (Max Farrand ed., 1911)
- ^2 THE RECORDS OF THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787, at 94-95 (Max Farrand ed., 1911)
- ^See Laurence Claus, Power Enumeration and the Silences of Constitutional Federalism http://ssrn.com/abstract=2837390
- ^National Archives and Records Administration. "The Constitution of the United states Article V". archives.gov.