Small States v. Large States

We will be blogging about the Constitutional Convention in the days leading up to Constitution Day, September 17. In this first post, we will describe the conflict between large and small states; later, we will talk about the disputes between other factions over how the Constitution would be written. Be sure to check back for more!

Virginia Plan

By the end of May 1787, the Constitutional Convention was consumed with debate over the Virginia delegation’s bold plan which proposed replacing the Articles of Confederation – a task far beyond what many Convention delegates thought they were authorized to do – with a powerful national government. Though some features of the Virginia Plan earned agreement, there were setbacks. In particular, the Virginia Plan had called for apportionment by population, and its advocates eagerly pushed this proposal. Roger Sherman, representing Connecticut, proposed in response that one house should be made up of representatives based on a state’s population of “free inhabitants” with all states having equal representation in the second house, “otherwise a few large States will rule the rest.”

William Paterson of New Jersey begged his fellow delegates to allow for further contemplation and the opportunity to develop an alternate option. He proposed the New Jersey Plan, laying out several resolutions, including revising that the Articles of Confederation in order to allow the federal government greater authority. The delegates fiercely debated the dueling proposals. Paterson asserted that the national government described by the New Jersey Plan “sustains the sovereignty of the respective states” whereas the Virginia Plan’s national government would absorb all major powers. Virginian Edmund Randolph remained adamant regarding the “imbecility of the existing Confederacy, & the danger of delaying a substantial reform.”

Sherman's Proposal

Oliver Ellsworth, of Connecticut, pushed the need for compromise. He proposed that if the lower house of the national legislature is elected on the “national principle,” the upper house should be elected on the “federal principle.” James Madison and James Wilson argued against this compromise, challenging that it would allow a minority to overrule a majority. Help for the resolution came from an unexpected place. North Carolina delegate William Davie – who had yet to speak up during the Convention’s proceedings – agreed with Ellsworth. Wilson warmed to the idea, then Benjamin Franklin offered warm words in support of compromise, and Madison indicated he might be open. There were dissenters on both sides, but at the end of the week, the makings of a compromise were there.

Davie’s support for Ellsworth’s compromise helped bring the issue to a vote. On July 2nd the resolution was defeated in a 5-5-1 tie. Roger Sherman, seeing the delegations equally divided, suggested giving this complicated question over to a committee to solve. The delegations agreed, and appointed one delegate from each of the eleven states represented in the Convention. Led by Elbridge Gerry, the Committee would spend the next several days debating the fate of state representation in the new government.

When the Convention resumed its business, the Gerry Committee was prepared with a report. Gerry rose to explain the report to the Convention. The report had three parts, which gave form to the view that had been developing of a union partly national and partly federal:

The first branch of legislature will be elected by population (as the large states had called for) with states being apportioned one member for every 40,000 inhabitants.

All bills that raise and appropriate money will originate in the First House and shall not be amended by the Second House.

In the second branch of the legislature each state will be represented equally.

Hamilton's Plan

Mr. Madison seems to have viewed the compromise as a crippling blow to the Virginia Plan. Nonetheless, several delegates rose to offer support of the Gerry Committee’s report or at least to a hearing. None was more forceful in defense of giving the Gerry Committee report a hearing than George Mason. The surly Virginian cautioned quarrelsome colleagues that “the Report was meant not as specific propositions to be adopted; but merely as a general ground of accommodation.”

After a weekend break, the delegates returned to approve (5 – 4 – 1) the Gerry Committee Report. Representation in the House of Representatives would be proportional and based on population; Senate representation would be equal for each State, and money bills would originate in the House and be un-amendable in the Senate. This is also known as the Connecticut Compromise, and is seen by many as a significant turning point in the Convention.
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One Response to “Constitution Day, Round 1: Small States v. Large States”

  1. [...] This is part of a continuing series of blog posts leading up to Constitution Day on September 17. Last time we looked at the conflict between large and small states; today, we will examine the dispute [...]

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