July 16-17: The Great Compromise, and Beyond

Without question, July 16 and 17 were two of the most important days of the Constitutional Convention. That’s because across the span of those two days, the delegates reached what gets called “The Great Compromise.” (Sometimes you’ll also hear this talked about as “The Connecticut Compromise” or “Sherman’s Compromise.”)

To that point, there had been difficult debate between large and small states over their representation in the proposed Senate. Larger states, not surprisingly, wanted representation in the Senate to be proportional, with states that contributed more to national defense and finance having more representatives. Smaller states, again not surprisingly, wanted equal representation. Deadlock was a real possibility, meaning that the failure of the convention was a real possibility.

But then Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman – both delegates from Connecticut – proposed a compromise that will sound familiar: In the House of Representatives, representation would be proportional to population; in the Senate, representation would be equal.

By the end of July 16, that Great Compromise passed … by one vote.

That vote, without which the convention may have well fallen apart, seems to have given the delegates the confidence that they could confront other issues that had thus far bedeviled them.

Even so: On July 17, delegates from the large states started the day by convening to consider reneging on the deal.

But the deal held, and so on July 17 the delegates moved from their long debates on the legislative branch to a consideration of the executive. The next weeks of the Constitutional Convention would center on the important issues of executive power. Centrally, the delegates debated: How could you have an “energetic” or  “vital” executive without courting monarchy or even tyranny?

That said, these two days marked what we should probably regard as the great climax or pivot of the convention. Because the question of representation was so central to the delegates, and so contentious among them, the agreement that resulted in the bicameral Congress we know ensured that: the convention would end up with a proposed constitution, that the proposed constitution would go back to the states for ratification, and that the whole quiet enterprise in Philadelphia would lead to loud public debate.

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