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The Constitutional Convention: The Great Compromise

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  1. 0:05 The Constitutional Convention
  2. 2:21 The Big Question
  3. 3:07 The Great Compromise
  4. 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

The Constitutional Convention was intended to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, those in attendance set out to found a republic (the likes of which had never been seen), which is still going strong well over 200 years later. To accomplish this task, compromises had to be made. The Great Compromise designed the bicameral congress the U.S. has today.

The Constitutional Convention: The Great Compromise

It's 1787. The Articles of Confederation have proven to be too weak to create a workable government. At the Philadelphia State House, now called Independence Hall, the same place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 11 years before, for four months 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 states met to frame a Constitution for a federal republic that would last to today and beyond.

Even before Shays' Rebellion, people had been talking about the need to strengthen the American government. When meeting at Mount Vernon - George Washington's home - he, James Madison, and others came up with the idea of convening a meeting of delegates from the states to amend the Articles of Confederation. This meeting happened in Annapolis, Maryland, but only five states sent delegates. It was at this meeting that Alexander Hamilton's recommendation to convene another reform meeting in Philadelphia in the spring of 1787 was forwarded to the Continental Congress.

The Constitutional Convention in 1787
Constitutional Convention

The states decided who they would send to the Constitutional Convention as delegates. Several prominent figures did not attend. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry were among those who were not in attendance. Henry, who once said, 'Give me liberty or give me death,' now said, 'I smell a rat.'

Of those who did attend, George Washington, who was noted for his patience and fairness, was selected as the presiding officer. 55 delegates attended. Today, they are usually regarded as great sages, but the delegates were mostly lawyers, merchants, and planters who were there to represent their personal and/or regional interests. It is amazing how the group on several occasions was able to look past those personal interests and make amazing compromises.

The original purpose of the meeting - to amend the Articles of Confederation - was almost instantly scrapped, and the decision to start from scratch on a new document was made. This decision proved to Patrick Henry all of his fears, and he fought tooth and nail against the ratification of the Constitution because the delegates had overstepped their purpose.

The Big Question

How should the new government be formed? There were two main plans. The New Jersey Plan is the plan for the little guys. New Jersey isn't the smallest state, but it certainly isn't big. They came up with a plan that the little guys thought was fair: all states get an equal number of representatives in the new government regardless of state size.

The Virginia Plan is the plan for the big guys. Virginia is a big state with lots of people. The Virginia Plan said that each state should gain representation based on population. This would of course mean that Virginia would get far more representation than New Jersey.

The Great Compromise

Since both plans had a bicameral legislature, the answer was really quite simple. Two separate houses would be established - one by population, as wanted for big states in the Virginia Plan, and one where all states get equal representation, as wanted by the little states in the New Jersey Plan.

This compromise is why today we have the Senate with two senators for each state (we could call it the New Jersey Plan Senator House) and the House of Representatives, which has each state's representatives decided by population (we could call this the Virginia Plan House). Of course, today Virginia has 11 representatives - it doesn't seem that big next to California's 53.

The Great Compromise divided the legislature into two houses
The Great Compromise

Of course, there were many more sticking points at the convention. One dark stain on the Constitution that has to be mentioned is the three-fifths compromise. Although the South did not want any rights for their slaves and wanted slaves treated as property, they did want their slaves to count as population when deciding their representation in the government. Since the Southern delegates would not move forward without the slaves being counted, a compromise was reached. 3/5 of the slave population would be counted towards the overall state population.

Lesson Summary

So, to recap: the Articles of Confederation were too weak. 55 delegates met in Philadelphia to amend them. Instead, they decided to start from scratch. The Great Compromise was reached between the big states and the small states. The proponents of the Virginia Plan got what they wanted in the population-based House of Representatives, while the proponents of the New Jersey Plan got what they wanted in the equal representation of the Senate.

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