The Great Compromise
(adapted from The American Nation, Prentice Hall: 2000)


On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia. Every state except Rhode Island sent representatives. Their mission was to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Hopelessly Divided

Soon after the meeting began, the delegates decided to do more than revise the Articles of Confederation. They chose instead to write an entirely new Constitution for the nation. They disagreed, however, about what form the national government should take.

The Virginia Plan

Edmund Randolph and James Madison, both from Virginia, proposed a plan for the new government. This Virginia Plan called for a strong national government with three “branches.” The legislative branch would make the laws. The executive branch would carry out, or enforce, the laws. The judicial branch, or system of courts, would interpret (decide what the laws meant).

According to the Virginia Plan, the legislative branch would consist of two houses. Seats in both houses would be awarded on the basis of population. Thus, in both houses, larger states would have more representatives than smaller states. This differed greatly from the Articles of Confederation, which gave every state one vote in Congress, regardless of the size of its population.

The New Jersey Plan

Small states objected strongly to the Virginia Plan. They feared that the large states could easily outvote them in Congress. In response, supporters of the Virginia Plan said that it was only fair for a state with more people to have more representatives.

After two weeks of debate, William Patterson of New Jersey presented a plan that had the support of the small states. Like the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan called for three branches of government. However, it provided for a legislature that had only one house. Each state, regardless of its population, would have one vote in the legislature.

The Great Compromise

For a while no agreement could be reached. It seemed as if the Convention would fall apart. Finally, Roger Sherman of Connecticut worked out a compromise. A compromise is a settlement in which each side gives up some of its demands in order to reach an agreement.

Sherman’s compromise called for a two-house legislature. Members of the lower house, known as the House of Representatives, would be elected by the voters in a state. As the larger states wished, seats in the House of Representatives would be awarded to each state according to its population.

Members of the upper house, called the Senate, would be chosen by state legislatures. Each state, no matter what its size, would have two Senators. This part of Sherman’s compromise appealed to the smaller states.
On July 16, the delegates narrowly approved Sherman’s plan. It became known as the Great Compromise. It saved the Convention and may have saved the nation.