In the stifling Philadelphia heat of 1787, while most of the city’s residents were on holiday down at the shore (not really — this is 1787), a small group of wealthy, White men were deciding the fate of a nation, and in many ways, the world.
They had, knowingly or unknowingly, become the chief architects of the American Experiment, which was making nations, thousands of miles and oceans apart, question the status quo about government, liberty, and justice.
But with so much at stake, the discussions between these men were heated, and without agreements such as the Great Compromise — also known as the Connecticut Compromise — the delegates present in Philadelphia that summer would have gone down in US history not as heroes but as a group of men that almost built a new country.
The entire reality we live in today would be different. It’s enough to make your mind hurt.
Of course, we all know this didn’t happen. Although all possessing differing interests and perspectives, the delegates eventually agreed to the US Constitution, a document that laid the groundwork for a prosperous America and began a slow but radical transition in the way governments operated all around the globe.
Before this could happen, though, the delegates who met in Philadelphia needed to work out some key differences pertaining to their visions for the new government of the United States.
What Was The Great Compromise? The Virginia Plan vs. The New Jersey Plan
The Great Compromise was an agreement struck at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that helped lay the foundation for the structure of the American government, allowing the delegates to move forward with deliberations and eventually write the US Constitution.
Uniting Around a Common Goal
As in any group, the delegates of the convention organized into factions — or, maybe better described, cliques. Differences were defined by state size, needs, economy, and even geographic location (i.e. the North and South haven’t agreed on much since their creation).
However, despite those divides, what brought everyone together was the desire to create the best possible government for this new and hard-fought nation.
After suffering through decades of suffocating tyranny from the British king and Parliament across the pond, the founders of the United States wanted to create something that was a true embodiment of the Enlightenment ideas that had motivated their revolution to begin with. Meaning life, liberty, and property were held as natural rights and that too much power concentrated within the hands of a few would not be tolerated.
So when it came time to submit proposals for a new government and discuss them, everyone had an idea as well as an opinion, and delegates from each state split off into their groups, drafting plans for the nation’s future.
Two of these plans quickly became front-runners and the debate turned fierce, pitting states against one another and leaving the fate of the nation hanging precariously in the balance.
Many Visions for a New Government
The two leading plans were the Virginia Plan, drafted and championed by one-day president James Madison, and the New Jersey Plan, put together as a response by William Patterson, one of New Jersey’s delegates to the Convention.
There were also two other plans — one put forth by Alexander Hamilton, which became known as the British Plan because it so closely resembled the British system, and one created by Charles Pickney, which was never formally written down, meaning there’s not much known about its specifics.
This left the Virginia Plan — which was supported by states such as Virginia (obviously), Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia — pitted against the New Jersey Plan — which had the support of New Jersey (again, duh), as well as Connecticut, Delaware, and New York.
Once debate began, it became clear the two sides were much further apart than initially believed. And it wasn’t just a difference in opinion on how to move forward that divided the Convention; rather, it was an entirely different understanding of the Convention’s primary purpose.
These issues could not be smoothed over with handshakes and promises, and so the two sides were left hopelessly deadlocked.
The Virginia Plan
The Virginia Plan, as mentioned, was spearheaded by James Madison. It called for three branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial, and put forth the foundation of the future Constitution’s system of checks and balances — which ensured that no branch of government could get too powerful.
However, in the plan, delegates proposed a bicameral Congress, meaning it would have two chambers, where delegates were chosen according to the population of each state.
What Was the Virginia Plan All About?
While it might seem like the Virginia Plan was designed to limit the power of smaller states, it wasn’t directly aiming for that. Instead, it was more about limiting the power of any one part of government.
Those in favor of the Virginia Plan saw a representative government as better suited to do this, as it would prevent the entrenchment of powerful senators into the American legislature.
Supporters of this proposal believed attaching representation to population, and having representatives serve short terms, created a legislature more apt to adjust to the changing face of a nation.
The New Jersey Plan
The smaller states didn’t see things the same way.
Not only did the Virginia Plan call for a government where small states would have much less of a voice (although this isn’t entirely true, since they still could have combined forces to have an impact), some delegates claimed it violated the entire purpose of the Convention, which was to rework the Articles of Confederation — at least according to one faction of the delegates sent to Philadelphia in 1787.
So, in response to James Madison’s draft, William Patterson gathered support from smaller states for a new proposal, which was eventually called the New Jersey Plan, named after Patterson’s home state.
It called for a single chamber of Congress in which each state had one vote, similar to the system in place under the Articles of Confederation.
Beyond that, it made some recommendations for how to improve the Articles, such as giving Congress the power to regulate interstate trade and also collect taxes, two things the Articles lacked and that contributed to their failure.
What Was the New Jersey Plan All About?
The New Jersey Plan was, first and foremost, a response to the Virginia Plan — but not just to the way in which the government was formed. It was a response to the decision made by these delegates to veer so far off the original course of the Convention.
It was also an attempt made by elites from smaller states to keep power consolidated. Let’s not forget that, though these men were creating what they thought was a democracy, they were petrified of handing over too much power to the commoners.
They were, instead, interested in providing a piece of that democracy pie just big enough to appease the masses, but plenty small enough to protect the social status quo.
Essentially, the debate that led to the Great Compromise was an attempt to answer the question over equal representation in Congress. During colonial times with the Continental Congress, and then later during the Articles of Confederation, each state had an equal vote regardless of its size.
Small states argued that equal representation was necessary because it gave them the chance to band together and stand up to larger states. But those larger states didn’t see this as fair, because they felt a larger population meant they deserved a louder voice.
This was such an issue at the time because of how different each US state was from one another. Each had its own interests and concerns, and smaller states feared giving too much power to larger states would lead to laws that would disadvantage them and weaken their power and autonomy, the latter of which being tremendously important to the people of 18th century America — loyalty at the time was given first to the state, especially since a strong nation didn’t really exist.
And given how much was at stake, neither side was willing to bend to the other, which created the need for a compromise that would allow the Convention to move forward.
The Great Compromise: Merging the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan
The stark differences between these two proposals brought the Constitutional Convention to a screeching halt. Delegates debated the two plans for more than six weeks, and for a while, it even looked as though no agreement would ever be reached.
But then, Roger Sherman from Connecticut stepped in, with his bleached wig freshly curled and his negotiation tricorn fitted tight on top, to save the day.
He came up with a compromise that would satisfy both sides and that got the wheels of the cart once again moving forward.
A Bicameral Congress: The Senate and the House of Representatives
The idea put forth by Sherman and company — which we now call “The Great Compromise” but which is also known as “The Connecticut Compromise” — was the perfect recipe for pleasing both sides. It took the foundation of the Virginia Plan, mainly its call for three branches of government and a bicameral (two chamber) Congress, and mixed in elements of the New Jersey Plan such as giving each state equal representation, hoping to create something that was to everyone’s liking.
The key change Sherman made, though, was that one of the chambers of Congress would be reflective of population while the other was to be made up of two senators from each state. He also proposed that bills about money be the responsibility of the House of Representatives, which was thought to be more in touch with the will of the people, and that Senators from the same state be allowed to vote independently from one another, a move designed to try and slightly limit the power of individual senators.
To make a law, a bill would need to get the approval of both houses of Congress, giving the smaller states a huge victory. In this framework of government, bills unfavorable to small states could be easily shot down in the Senate, where their voice would be amplified (much louder than it really was, in many ways).
However, in this plan, senators would be elected by state legislatures, and not the people — a reminder of how these founders were still very interested in keeping power out of the hands of the masses.
Of course, for the small states, accepting this plan would mean accepting the death of the Articles of Confederation, but all of this power was too much to forgo, and so they agreed.
And with that, the Convention could move forward.
What was the Effect of the Great Compromise?
The Great Compromise allowed the Constitutional Convention to move forward by resolving a key difference between large and small states. Because of this, the delegates of the Convention were able to draft a document they could pass onto the states for ratification.
It also instilled a willingness to work together into the American political system, a characteristic that allowed the nation to survive nearly a century before drastic sectional differences plunged it into civil war.
A Temporary But Effective Solution
The Great Compromise is one of the main reasons why the delegates were able to write the Constitution, but this debate helped show some of the dramatic differences between the many states that were supposed to be “united.”
Not only was there a rift between small states and large states, but the North and the South were at odds with one another over an issue that would come to dominate the first century of American history: slavery.
Compromise became a necessary part of early American politics because many of the states were so far apart that if each side didn’t give a little, nothing would happen.
In this sense, the Great Compromise set an example for future lawmakers about how to work together in the face of great disagreements — guidance that would be needed for American politicians almost immediately.
(In many ways, it seems this lesson was eventually lost, and it could be argued that the nation is still searching for it today.)
The Three-Fifths Compromise
This spirit of collaboration was put to the test right away as the delegates of the Constitutional Convention found themselves divided once again just a short time after agreeing to the Great Compromise.
A harbringer of things to come, the issue that drove the two sides apart was slavery.
Specifically, the Convention needed to decide how slaves were going to be counted into the population numbers used to determine representation in Congress.
Southern states obviously wanted to count them in full so that they could get more representatives, but Northern states argued they shouldn’t be counted at all, as they “weren’t really people and didn’t actually count.” (18th century words, not ours!)
In the end, they agreed to count three-fifths of the slave population towards representation. Of course, even being considered an entire three-fifths of a person wasn’t enough to grant any of them the right to vote for the people representing them, but it’s not like that concerned the delegates of the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
They had bigger things on their plate than dilly-dallying over the institution of human bondage. No need to stir things up by going too deep into the morality of owning people as property and forcing them to work with no pay under the threat of beatings or even death.
More important things took up their time. Like worrying about how many votes they could get in Congress.
READ MORE: The Three-Fifths Compromise
Remembering the Great Compromise
The Great Compromise’s primary impact was that it allowed the delegates of the Constitutional Convention to proceed with their debates about the new form of the US government.
By agreeing to the Great Compromise, the delegates could move forward and discuss other issues, like the contribution of slaves to the population as well as the powers and duties of each branch of government.
But perhaps most importantly, the Great Compromise made it possible for the delegates to submit a draft of the new Constitution to the states for ratification by the end of the Summer of 1787 — a process that was dominated by fierce debate and that would take just over two years.
When ratification eventually happened, and with the election of George Washington as president in 1789, the United States as we know it was born.
However, while the compromise succeeded in bringing the delegates of the Convention together (mostly), it also made it possible for smaller factions within the United States’ political elite — most prominently the Southern slaveholder class — to have tremendous influence on the federal government, a reality that meant the nation would live in an almost-perpetual state of crisis during the Antebellum Period.
Eventually, this crisis spread from the political elite to the people, and by 1860, America was at war with itself.
The principle reason these smaller factions were able to have such influence was the “two-vote-per-state Senate” that was established thanks to the Great Compromise. Intended to appease smaller states, the Senate, over the years, has become a forum for political stagnation by allowing political minorities to stall lawmaking until they get their way.
This was not just a 19th century problem. Today, the Senate continues to disproportionately distribute power in the United States, largely because of the dramatic differences that exist in states’ populations.
For example, Wyoming, which has around 500,000 people, has the same voice in the Senate as states with very large populations, such as California, which has over 40 million. This means there is a senator for every 250,000 people living in Wyoming, but only one senator for every 20 million people living in California.
This is nowhere close to equal representation.
The founders could never have predicted such dramatic differences in state population, but one could argue these differences are accounted for the House of Representatives, which reflects population and has the power to override the Senate in the event it acts in a way that is exceptionally blind to the will of the people.
Whether the system in place now works or not, it’s clear it was built based on the context in which the creators were living at the time. In other words, the Great Compromise pleased both sides then, and it’s now up to the American people today to decide if it still does.