As the delegates to the Federal Convention worked through the process of revising the Articles of Confederation, a couple of things had quickly become apparent. One, the revisions wouldn’t likely be a band-aid, “patch-and-mend” fix of what already existed. A complete overhaul was being proposed. Second, included in that overhaul was a two-housed legislature, and the fight to determine its makeup would be long, difficult, and intense.
We look at the modern-day composition of our Senate and House of Representatives and we pretty much take its structure for granted. To the “upper” house, each state sends a pair of Senators. Representation in the “lower” house is determined by population. States with more people have more Representatives, less populous states have fewer, and every state is guaranteed at least one.
In 2010, it’s automatic. It’s a no-brainer. In 1787, it was most certainly not automatic.
The men representing the larger states believed both houses should be built based on population. However, their reasoning was not as self-serving as it may seem at first blush. Of course, the result was that the larger states enjoyed something of a monopoly (or at least a strong majority) on the proceedings. But there was more to it. Larger states contributed proportionally more tax money to the central government’s coffers, so it stood to reason that large states should have a greater say. Furthermore, wasn’t government based on the “will of the people” rather than the “will of the states”? Under the Articles of Confederation, any state could veto legislation with which it disagreed, and the large states believed that “one state, one vote” had damaged the will of the people and given the small states way too much power.
The delegates from the smaller states saw things differently. They believed that equal representation balanced the inequity that existed between small and large states. It gave smaller states a larger voice and offered them protection. In their minds, these delegates believed that large states would use their vote power to simply overrun the wishes of the small states.
I suppose that, in a perfect world, representation by population could have worked well, since the government was being designed was to be for the people, and not the states. But it wasn’t perfect, and the small states were not backing down, and in the world that was Independence Hall during the brutally hot summer of 1787, it was a serious point of contention.
On June 11th, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman offered up the suggestion that the proposed Senate be populated based on equal representation for the states, while the House be filled proportionately. The proposal was initially defeated by the group, but it never really died, as the option to revisit it remained alive. The delegates moved on to deal with less difficult matters, but all knew that this issue would arise again.
One thing that didn’t rise on the weekend of July 14th and 15th was the temperatures. In the midst of a scorching summer, a reprieve of cooler weather and refreshing northwest breezes maybe helped set the stage for calmer debate and cooler heads. I’m not sure that history records it, but maybe the windows of the Independence Hall were thrown open on the Monday morning of July 16, 1787, and the cooler air worked its magic. It was on this day that the debate on representation was finally settled, and Roger Sherman’s “Connecticut Compromise” was adopted…by one vote.
It came to be known as the Great Compromise, and while we might sit here scratching our heads wondering what’s so great about it, there is little doubt as to the likely outcome had Sherman’s proposal not been passed. I turn once again to Catherine Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia. “There are critics today who think the Convention erred, and that the Senate, like the House, should have remained proportional. Yet without the Great Compromise it is hard to see how the Federal Convention could have proceeded further; since the beginning it had been cause for battle.”
Luther Martin, with whom we are familiar, wrote after-the-fact that the struggle “nearly terminated in a dissolution of the Convention.” James Madison, from the large state of Virginia and one of the stars of the Convention, didn’t agree with the result, but understood that fighting the smaller states further on the issue was pointless. If a new government was to have any chance to survive, it had to first be born. The Great Compromise was the single most important event in the Convention’s timeline.
Is it a perfect solution today? The critics that Bowen references would say no. Ron Chernow writes that “the Senate’s composition introduced a lasting political bias in American life in favor of smaller states.” And honestly, proportional representation seems to me the proper way to do things. But ours is not a pure democracy, and the Senate actually offers some “counter-protection” against a weakness of a democracy: the tyranny of the majority.
And 225 years ago, proportional representation in both houses wasn’t going to get a new constitution written. It wasn’t going to end the complete small-state dominance afforded by the Articles of Confederation (to say nothing of its other weaknesses). And it wasn’t going to create a government system that, despite glaring flaws, has survived more than two centuries without being thrown to the historical ash-heap.
Recommended Reading: James Madison