Drafting the Constitution

15d. Constitution Through Compromise

Roger Sherman
Roger Sherman was the only man to sign all 4 of the important Revolutionary documents: The Association of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.

"Representation" remained the core issue for the Philadelphia Convention. What was the best way for authority to be delegated from the people and the states to a strengthened central government?

After still more deeply divided argument, a proposal put forward by delegates from Connecticut (a small population state ), struck a compromise that narrowly got approved. They suggested that representatives in each house of the proposed bicameral legislature be selected through different means. The upper house (or Senate) would reflect the importance of state sovereignty by including two people from each state regardless of size. Meanwhile, the lower house (the House of Representatives) would have different numbers of representatives from each state determined by population. Representation would be adjusted every ten years through a federal census that counted every person in the country.

By coming up with a mixed solution that balanced state sovereignty and popular sovereignty tied to actual population, the Constitution was forged through what is known as the Connecticut Compromise. In many respects this compromise reflected a victory for small states, but compared with their dominance in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation it is clear that negotiation produced something that both small and large states wanted.

Other major issues still needed to be resolved, however, and, once again, compromise was required on all sides. One of the major issues concerned elections themselves. Who would be allowed to vote? The different state constitutions had created different rules about how much property was required for white men to vote. The delegates needed to figure out a solution that could satisfy people with many different ideas about who could have the franchise (that is, who could be a voter).

George Washington at the Constitutional convention

Washington as Statesman at the
Constitutional Convention

Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856

For the popular lower house, any white man who paid taxes could vote. Thus, even those without property, could vote for who would represent them in the House of Representatives. This expanded the franchise in some states. To balance this opening, the two Senators in the upper house of the national government would be elected by the state legislatures. Finally, the President (that is, the executive branch) would be elected at the state level through an electoral college whose numbers reflected representation in the legislature.

To modern eyes, the most stunning and disturbing constitutional compromise by the delegates was over the issue of slavery. Some delegates considered slavery an evil institution and George Mason of Virginia even suggested that the trans-Atlantic slave trade be made illegal by the new national rules. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia where slavery was expanding rapidly in the late-18th century angrily opposed this limitation. If any limitations to slavery were proposed in the national framework, then they would leave the convention and oppose its proposed new plan for a stronger central government. Their fierce opposition allowed no room for compromise and as a result the issue of slavery was treated as a narrowly political, rather than a moral, question.

The delegates agreed that a strengthened union of the states was more important than the Revolutionary ideal of equality. This was a pragmatic, as well as a tragic, constitutional compromise, since it may have been possible (as suggested by George Mason's comments) for the slave state of Virginia to accept some limitations on slavery at this point.

Slave trade
The slave trade was always a controversial issue in the history of the United States.

The proposed constitution actually strengthened the power of slave states in several important respects. Through the "fugitive clause," for example, governments of free states were required to help recapture runaway slaves who had escaped their masters' states. Equally disturbing was the "three-fifths formula" established for determining representation in the lower house of the legislature. Slave states wanted to have additional political power based on the number of human beings that they held as slaves. Delegates from free states wouldn't allow such a blatant manipulation of political principles, but the inhumane compromise that resulted meant counting enslaved persons as three-fifths of a free person for the sake of calculating the number of people a state could elect to the House of Representatives.

After hot summer months of difficult debate in Philadelphia from May to September 1787, the delegates had fashioned new rules for a stronger central government that extended national power well beyond the scope of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution created a national legislature that could pass the supreme law of the land, could raise taxes, and with greater control over commerce. The proposed rules also would restrict state actions, especially in regard to passing pro-debtor laws. At the end of the long process of creating the new plan, thirty-eight of the remaining forty-one delegates showed their support by signing the proposed Constitution. This small group of national superstars had created a major new framework through hard work and compromise.

Now another challenge lay ahead. Could they convince the people in the states that this new plan was worth accepting?

QUIZ TIME: Constitution Quiz

On the Web
Creating a Constitution
From start to finish, this Library of Congress page describes some of the reasons why and how the U.S. Constitution was developed. In addition, this informative page discusses the lives of many of the major contributors to the foundational document of American democracy.
George Mason University Virtual Tour
George Mason University maintains a site about their namesake, who is considered to be "The Father of the Bill of Rights." In addition to a biography about this Founding Father, a virtual tour at the university allows users to see the statue of George Mason firsthand without traveling to Virginia!
Colonial Hall: Biographies of America's Founding Fathers
The lives and achievements of some of America's greatest historical figures, from John Adams to George Washington, can be found here. Also, check out the daily trivia section to find out some of the more obscure facts about our Founding Fathers. Here's one: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence!
Africans in America Part 2 The Constitution and the New Nation
This PBS maintained site takes a less-traveled path through the formation and effects of the Constitution, that of the slave. The page begins with the Fugitive Clause of the Constitution, and discusses how the African people adapted to a new, and often unforgiving culture. Additionally, there are great links to other documents of that time period (1750-1805), all related in some way to the African perspective.
The U.S. Constitution: The Delegates
The delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence aren't the only Founding Fathers — the state representatives who signed the Constitution also deserve recognition as founders of the United States. Browse the brief biographical essays and view portraits of some of the delegates at this website run by the National Archives.
The United States Constitution Online
This site is so good we decided to list it twice! The creator of this fantastic Constitution website proudly asserts: "This site is increasingly being used as a source in research papers and by debate clubs and the like, and in simple Internet disagreements." And it's true that people love reading, dissecting, and arguing over the U.S. Constitution. Explore all aspect of the United States Constitution Online to uncover the text of the Constitution, explanations of the document, biographies of the framers, and much more.
The Problem of Slavery
How could the delegates to the Constitutional Convention possible determine that a slave could be deemed three-fifths of a human being? And why doesn't the word "slavery" appear in the Constitution anyway? A scholar who has studied the document for years
The basement of Independence Hall, the building in which the Constitution was signed, originally served as Philadelphia's dog pound.
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