Guest Essayist: Robert McDonald


The Greatest Compromises Secure the Blessings of Liberty

In our current era of partisan polarization, just about any compromise can seem great. This makes all the more remarkable the Great Compromise of 1787, when so much seemed at stake.

The Great Compromise (also known as the “Connecticut Compromise”) broke an impasse between large and small states as well as nationalists and localists. It made possible the eventual ratification of the Constitution.

But the compromise did more than result in the creation of the Senate, in which each state has two members, and the House of Representatives, where a state’s number of seats is proportional to its population. It also strengthened the Constitution’s checks and balances of competing powers and interests in order to better secure Americans’ liberty.

When the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia in May of 1787, the need for compromise soon became apparent. Congress had authorized delegates to meet “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation,” under which states had equal representation in a unicameral assembly of delegates chosen by state legislatures. Yet on May 29, James Madison and Edmund Randolph proposed the “Virginia plan,” which would scrap the Articles and institute a new constitution featuring a strong, one-man executive, as well as a bicameral legislature in which membership in both houses would be proportional to states’ populations or contributions in tax revenue.

What had once been a confederation of states would be erased by a new national government in which state governments had no direct voice. This displeased localists (soon to be labeled “Antifederalists”) who viewed the American Revolution, in part, as a struggle for the autonomy of the 13 former British colonies. It also put on the defensive small states, which feared that the proposed new system would allow highly-populated neighbors such as Virginia and Pennsylvania to dictate the government’s direction.

In response, on June 15 William Patterson presented the “New Jersey plan.” Patterson proposed to retain the Articles of Confederation and its one-house legislature in which all states had one vote. The Articles would be amended, however, to vest the central government with new powers to collect taxes and regulate commerce. In addition, a new, multiple-person executive branch would be authorized to compel compliance with the central government’s laws.

It took delegates only a few days to reject the New Jersey plan. Even so, the Virginia plan lacked the support necessary for its adoption. The Constitutional Convention remained deadlocked.

The Convention regained momentum when Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, both of Connecticut, proposed combining elements of the Virginia and New Jersey plans. When finalized on July 23, the Great Compromise had settled on a Senate in which states had equal representation and a House of Representatives where seats were assigned according to population.

The compromise did more than split the difference between the Virginia and New Jersey plans. Embracing the Virginia plan’s bicameralism meant that bills would need to pass through an additional filter prior to arriving on the desk of the (one-man) executive. Embracing in the Senate the New Jersey plan’s insistence on representation that was not only equal among the states but also (prior to the 1913 adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment) elected by the state legislatures meant that state governments, which had existed prior to the new national one, enjoyed a safeguard against the usurpation of their authority. Unlike under the Articles of Confederation, however, the compromise allowed senators to vote as individuals; gone would be the days when delegates cast ballots to decide their state’s single vote. Yet revenue bills would originate in the proportional, popularly-elected House—in deference to the Revolutionary rallying cry of “no taxation without representation.”

All this made the Great Compromise better, stronger, and more consequential than the sum of its parts. It helped to institute a plan that leveraged key features of America’s Revolutionary heritage in the service of the future United States—a nation of nations that divided power within the central government and between the central government, the states, and individual citizens.

The democratic republic that resulted was to be a means to an end even greater than itself.  Although the framers of the Constitution imagined different ways to achieve their goal, they refused to compromise their commitment to secure the blessings of liberty. They found a way to compromise on the new government’s decision-making process in order to enjoy the best hopes of realizing its purpose. This made all the difference.

Robert M. S. McDonald is Professor of History at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, and author of Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time.


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2 replies
  1. Lee Mortimer
    Lee Mortimer says:

    I’ve often felt we’re long overdue for a new “great compromise” to redeem our dysfunctional legislative branch. The idea of an “upper house” where Wyoming has the same power as California is just incompatible with modern democracy. A possible compromise might be to fold the U.S. Senate into a 535-member U.S. House but give each state two additional House members. In other words, a unicameral Congress modeled on the electoral college. With every state having at least three members of Congress, it would thus be possible to elect the Congress with any of several forms of multi-member proportional representation. And that would finally get the country out from under non-competitive, unrepresentative winner-take-all elections.

  2. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Thank you for another wonderful essay. The more I read about the Federal Convention the more I appreciate the herculean task the Founder’s untook, the marvelous Constitution it generated, the challenges even The Fabulous Founder’s could not surmount, and how time has proven that many of their concerns about governments was indeed justified.

    These essays has opened my eyes to the pernicious impact the 17th amendment has had on the checks and balances the Founder’s envisioned. The idea a pure democracy is alluring, but much like Ovid’s mythical Medusa; what originally appears to be ravishingly beautiful soon becomes so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it turns onlookers to to stone. Maybe the Senate has yet to achieved full Medusa powers for onlookers, but its seems to have done so for those in its hallowed halls.

    Conversely, as all that is truly beautiful which become more so with a continuous and deeper gaze, so it is with our Constitution. A truly amazing construct, even with its glaring flaws.



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