How We Sold Our Soul–The Connecticut Compromise of 1787

A gridlock over state representation resulted during the Constitutional Convention. At odds were two competing plans: the Virginia plan, which favored large states, and the New Jersey plan, which favored small states. The representatives, who had been working for seven weeks in the hot summer, almost had everything that they had been working on completely unraveled due to the stalemate between states.

The saving grace that helped preserve the Constitution was the Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise of 1787 or Sherman Compromise) was an agreement reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation each state would have under the United States Constitution. It provided the states with equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives. It retained the bicameral legislature as proposed by Roger Sherman, along with proportional representation of the states in the lower house or House of Representatives, and it required the upper house or Senate to be weighted equally among the states; each state would have two representatives in the Senate. All revenue measures would originate in the lower house.  The agreement, which created today’s system of congressional representation, now influences everything from “pork barrel” legislation to the way votes are counted in the electoral college during presidential elections.

Events Leading Up to the Connecticut Compromise

What would the United States be today if the original 13 states never came to an agreement on the Constitution? This was nearly the case during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, because the states could not agree on how the legislative branch of the government should look. But thanks to the Connecticut Compromise, this was not a long-lived problem.

Before we learn more about what the Connecticut Comprise is, let’s look at the situation that led up to it.

The Framers of the Constitution had already agreed that they would have a bicameral, or two-house, legislative branch. The Framers had decided that one branch would have representatives who served for six years and another branch would have representatives who served for two years.

Large, more populous states wanted the number of representatives from each state in the legislature to be dependent on the size of the population of the state. After all, these states figured that they had the most people and were contributing the most money to the national government. Small states, on the other hand, wanted the legislature to have an equal number of representatives for all states. These small states feared that they would be controlled by the large states and have little say if representation was based on population.

On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph of the Virginia delegation proposed the creation of a bicameral legislature. Under his proposal, membership in both houses would be allocated to each state proportional to its population. Candidates for the lower house would be nominated and elected by the people of each state, while candidates for the upper house would be nominated by the state legislatures of each state and then elected by the members of the lower house. This proposal was known as the Virginia Plan.

Less populous states like Delaware were afraid that such an arrangement would result in their voices and interests being drowned out by the larger states. Many delegates also felt that the Convention did not have the authority to completely scrap the Articles of Confederation, as the Virginia Plan would have done. In response, on June 15, 1787, William Paterson of the New Jersey delegation proposed a legislature consisting of a single house. Each state was to have equal representation in this body, regardless of population. The New Jersey Plan, as it was called, would have left the Articles of Confederation in place but would have amended them to somewhat increase Congress’s powers.

At the time of the convention, the South was growing more quickly than the North, and southern states had the most extensive Western claimsSouth CarolinaNorth Carolina, and Georgia were small in the 1780s, but they expected growth and thus favored proportional representation. New York was one of the largest states at the time, but two of its three representatives (Alexander Hamilton being the exception) supported an equal representation per state, as part of their desire to see maximum autonomy for the states. New York’s two other representatives departed the convention before the representation issue was voted upon, leaving Alexander Hamilton, and New York State, without a vote in the issue.

James Madison and Hamilton were two of the leaders of the proportional representation group. Madison argued that a conspiracy of large states against the small states was unrealistic as the large states were so different from each other. Hamilton argued that the states were artificial entities made up of individuals and accused small state representatives of wanting power, not liberty. For their part, the small state representatives argued that the states were, in fact, of a legally equal status and that proportional representation would be unfair to their states. Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware notoriously threatened on behalf of the small states, “the small ones would find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice”. Elbridge Gerry ridiculed the small states’ claim of sovereignty, saying “that we never were independent States, were not such now, & never could be even on the principles of the Confederation. The States & the advocates for them were intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty.”

On June 19, 1787, the delegates rejected the New Jersey Plan and voted to proceed with a discussion of the Virginia Plan. The small states became increasingly discontented, and some threatened to withdraw. On July 2, 1787, the Convention was deadlocked over giving each state an equal vote in the upper house, with five states in the affirmative, five in the negative, and one divided.

The debate almost destroyed the U.S. Constitution.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, delegates from larger states believed each state’s representation in the newly proposed Senate should be proportionate to population.

Smaller states with lower populations argued that such an arrangement would lead to an unfair dominance of larger states in the new nation’s government, and each state should have equal representation, regardless of population.

The disagreement over representation threatened to derail the ratification of the U.S. Constitution since delegates from both sides of the dispute vowed to reject the document if they didn’t get their way. The solution came in the form of a compromise proposed by statesmen Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut.


The problem was referred to a committee consisting of one delegate from each state to reach a compromise. On July 5, 1787, the committee submitted its report, which became the basis for the “Great Compromise” of the Convention. The report recommended that in the upper house each state should have an equal vote, and in the lower house, each state should have one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants, counting three-fifths of each state’s slave population toward that state’s total population, and that money bills should originate in the lower house (not subject to amendment by the upper chamber).

Sherman sided with the two-house national legislature of the Virginia Plan, but proposed “That the proportion of suffrage in the 1st. Branch [house] should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more.” What was ultimately included in the constitution was a modified form of this plan, partly because the larger states disliked it. In committee, Benjamin Franklin modified Sherman’s proposal to make it more acceptable to the larger states. He added the requirement that revenue bills originate in the House.

James Madison of Virginia, Rufus King of New York, and Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania each vigorously opposed the compromise since it left the Senate looking like the Confederation Congress. For the nationalists, the Convention’s vote for the compromise was a stunning defeat. However, on July 23, they found a way to salvage their vision of an elite, independent Senate. Just before most of the convention’s work was referred to the Committee of Detail, Morris and King moved that states’ members in the Senate be given individual votes, rather than voting en bloc, as they had in the Confederation Congress. Then Oliver Ellsworth, a leading proponent of the Connecticut Compromise, supported their motion, and the Convention reached the enduring compromise.

After six weeks of turmoil, North Carolina switched its vote to equal representation per state, Massachusetts abstained, and a compromise was reached. Every state was given equal representation, previously known as the New Jersey Plan, in one house of Congress, and proportional representation, known before as the Virginia Plan, in the other. Because it was considered more responsive to majority sentiment, the House of Representatives was given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues/taxation, per the Origination Clause.

Since the Convention had early acquiesced in the Virginia Plan’s proposal that senators have long terms, restoring that plan’s vision of individually powerful senators stopped the Senate from becoming a strong safeguard of federalism. State governments lost their direct say in Congress’s decisions to make national laws. As the personally influential senators received terms much longer than the state legislators who elected them, they became substantially independent. The compromise continued to serve the self-interests of small-state political leaders, who were assured of access to more seats in the Senate than they might otherwise have obtained.

The plan was at first rejected, but then approved by a slim margin on July 23, 1787.

On top of allowing for the drafting of the Constitution, the Connecticut Compromise set an important precedent of compromises in American political culture. Since two sides in the Continental Congress could not come to an agreement, Sherman and Ellsworth’s plan sought to build a bridge and find common ground.

Smaller states have disproportionately more power in the Senate.
At the time of the of the convention, states’ populations varied, but not by nearly as much as they do today. As a result, one of the main lingering political effects of the Great Compromise is that states with smaller populations have a disproportionately bigger voice in the nation’s Congress.


The only way that the Constitution was written and ratified was through several compromises that were made the congresses of the various states that were represented in the Constitutional convention. Of all the compromises made this one probably involved the least moral compromise. The smaller states made out like bandits in the Senate, but it balanced out in the House of Representatives. Was this this the best solution and was it equitable, who is to say? It has sufficed for the last 200 plus years, so I will leave it at that. All I know it was a major stumbling block, and if the compromise were not made the Constitution may have never been ratified.

Resources, “The Connecticut Compromise.” By Wikipedia Editors;, “The Connecticut Compromise: Definition, Summary & Author”;, “How the Great Compromise and the Electoral College Affects Politics Today: Larger states wanted congressional representation based on population, while smaller states wanted equal representation. They met in the middle.” By AMANDA ONION;