Constitutional Law

Legislative Branch

How precarious was the Great Compromise and its ultimate success?

It was a very precarious time and the Convention almost divided irreparably over this issue of legislative representation. Fortunately, delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed a measure that would eventually save the Constitution. Roger Sherman was an influential politician with a distinguished political career. Sherman has the distinction of signing several great American documents—the Declaration and Resolves of 1774 (a document in which the colonists declared their resolve to oppose British power), the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and finally the United States Constitution.

Sherman played an influential role in the Convention, but he is most remembered for his compromise that saved the Convention and the Constitution. Under this so-called “Great Compromise,” the states would be represented equally in the Senate and the states would be represented proportionally in the House of Representatives based on population. This proposal reflects our current system.

However, Sherman’s proposal was voted down 6 to 5 when it was first introduced. The delegates continued to argue over the issue of proportional versus equal representation. On July 2, the states voted 5 to 5 on the question of equal representation in the Senate. The states of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland favored equal representation. The states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina opposed equal representation. The state of Georgia could have broken the tie, but the two Georgia delegates present—William Houstoun and Abraham Baldwin—split.

Four delegates from Georgia were present at the Convention. However, two of the members, William Few and William Pierce, left the convention for New York to vote on pressing matters in Congress. Few and Pierce would have voted against equal representation. The Convention was hanging in the balance. The small states would have lost the question of equal representation this day if it had not been for the vote of Abraham Baldwin. Baldwin had lived in Connecticut virtually his whole life, having moved to Georgia only three years before the Convention. Some historians assert that Baldwin saved the Constitution because he split the Georgia votes and saved the small states from defeat. They argue that Baldwin voted the way he did because he knew the small states would collapse the Convention if they lost the equal representation question in the Senate.

The Convention then agreed to allow a committee of one person from each of the 11 states to be formed to explore the question of how to organize the Congress. The states voted 10 to 1 in favor of such a committee. The committee was composed primarily of individuals who were in favor of a senate chosen by equal representation. On July 5, 1787, the committee read its report to the entire delegation. The report called for proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate. Many of the delegates who had wanted proportional representation in both houses had conceded this issue, realizing that the delegates from the small states might leave if they did not get their way.


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