On this day (July 16) in 1787, the Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, voted by the narrowest of margins to approve the Committee on Compromise’s report (now known as the “Connecticut Compromise” or “Great Compromise”).
Appointed July 2, this committee – composed of Elbridge Gerry (Mass.), Benjamin Franklin (Pa.), George Mason (Va.), William Richardson Davie (N.C.), John Rutledge (S.C.), Oliver Ellsworth (Conn.), Robert Yates (N.Y.), William Paterson (N.J.), Gunning Bedford Jr. (Del.), Luther Martin (Md.), and Abraham Baldwin (Ga.) – had heatedly debated the issue of how to allocate political power in the new governmental charter being drafted.
The tally, on this pleasantly cool, overcast Monday, was five states (Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina and Delaware) voted yes to the committee’s report, and four states (Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) voted no.
On this most significant vote, four of the 13 American states did not participate. The Massachusetts delegation was evenly divided, thereby losing its vote. New Hampshire’s two delegates had not yet arrived. New York’s delegation did not have its quorum. And, of course, Rhode Island had completely boycotted the convention.
Interestingly, the four states that voted negatively had a greater population (1,512,000) than the five that voted positively (1,192,000). Thus it is apparent that the “Connecticut Compromise” was a victory for the small states.
Since most of the delegates to the “Grand Convention” were nationalists (i.e., they wanted to give the national government supreme power vis-à-vis the states), the battle over the “Great Compromise” was not between nationalists and states’ rights advocates, but rather was between two groups of nationalists – small state nationalists (ably led by Roger Sherman (Conn.), Oliver Ellsworth (Conn.), and John Dickinson (Del.); and large state nationalists (led by “The Father of the Constitution” James Madison (Va.), James Wilson (Pa.), and Gouverneur Morris (Pa.).
The large states, with their Virginia Plan, had dominated the convention from its first meeting on Friday, May 25, through to this day, Monday, July 16. However, with the passage of the “Connecticut Compromise,” the more numerous small states essentially took control of the convention and thereafter joined the large states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts in drafting what is properly considered “a bundle of compromises” – the United States Constitution.
The “Great Compromise,” which probably saved the gathering from dissolution, contained numerous non-controversial provisions. The major controversial issues it settled were: It provided proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate, it counted an individual slave as three-fifths of a white in determining representation, and it mandated that all money bills were to originate in the House of Representatives.
The debate over the “Connecticut Compromise” was really a clash of wills over the issue of who would dominate the new national government. The many compromises struck at the convention between agrarian and commercial interests, between political conservatives and political liberals, and between nationalists and states righters, while important, were all made possible when the “great debate” between the two nationalistic groups (i.e., small state versus large state) was finally settled, on this day, in favor of the small state nationalists.
The small states’ victory was in obtaining equality in the U.S. Senate.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for talks and workshops on American history. Email him at email@example.com.