The 1787 Constitutional Convention – The Connecticut Compromise Takes the Stage

photo-1474663898126-6f6f19a48b1d_optJune 29, 1787 (click to read Madison’s notes)


On this day in Convention, the delegates decided on proportional representation in the House of Representatives and postponed a vote on representation in the Senate. Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth introduced the Connecticut Compromise for consideration.

Influences on the Delegates

The delegates picked up on June 29 as if Franklin had never made his call to prayer.  They resumed the debate over representation in the legislature straightaway. The first words of Madison’s notes reflect the divisions over the power of states and how they should be represented in the national legislature.

In Convention. —  Doctor JOHNSON. The controversy must be endless whilst gentlemen differ in the grounds of their arguments; those on one side considering the States as districts of people composing one political society: those on the other, considering them as so many political societies. The fact is, that the States do exist as political societies, and a government is to be formed for them in their political capacity, as well as for the individuals composing them.

However Connecticut’s William Johnson laid some groundwork for a compromise.

On the whole he [Johnson] thought, that, as in some respects the States are to be considered in their political capacity, and in others as districts of individual citizens, the two ideas embraced on different sides, instead of being opposed to each other, ought to be combined; that in one branch the people ought to be represented, in the other the States.

Madison used Britain as a point of comparison. The new government would be better for the states than the British arrangement.

According to the views of every member, the General Government will have powers far beyond those exercised by the British Parliament when the States were part of the British Empire. It will, in particular, have the power, without the consent of the State Legislatures, to levy money directly from the people themselves; and therefore, not to divest such unequal portions of the people as composed the several States of an equal voice, would subject the system to the reproaches and evils which have resulted from the vicious representation in Great Britain.

Madison then pointed the delegates to the European experience.

His [Madison’s] great fear was, that their Governments would then have too much energy; that this might not only be formidable in the large to the small States, but fatal to the internal liberty of all. The same causes which have rendered the old world the theatre of incessant wars, and have banished liberty from the face of it, would soon produce the same effects here. The weakness and jealousy of the small States would quickly introduce some regular military force, against sudden danger from their powerful neighbours. The example would be followed by others, and would soon become universal. In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive magistrate. Constant apprehension of war has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty.

And then, adding to what had become a familiar formula, Madison referred to the results of flaws in the system of Rome.

The means of defence against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim, to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended.

He closed by suggesting there was something for the delegates to learn from Britain and Europe.

Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved, the people. It is, perhaps, questionable, whether the best-concerted system of absolute power in Europe, could maintain itself, in a situation where no alarms of external danger could tame the people to the domestic yoke. The insular situation of Great Britain was the principal cause of her being an exception to the general fate of Europe. It has rendered less defence necessary, and admitted a kind of defence which could not be used for the purpose of oppression. These consequences, he conceived, ought to be apprehended, whether the States should run into a total separation from each other, or should enter into partial confederacies. Either event would be truly deplorable; and those who might be accessary to either, could never be forgiven by their country, nor by themselves.

Although vague, Hamilton’s reference to miracles bears notice.

We should run every risk in trusting to future amendments. As yet we retain the habits of union. We are weak, and sensible of our weakness. Henceforward, the motives will become feebler, and the difficulties greater. It is a miracle that we are now here, exercising our tranquil and free deliberations on the subject. It would be madness to trust to future miracles. A thousand causes must obstruct a re-production of them.

If he had made this statement at another time, I might not mention Hamilton’s skepticism. However, it seems noteworthy because his statement about “madness to trust to future miracles” came the day after Ben Franklin urged the delegates to seek heaven’s assistance. Willing to acknowledge that the Convention was an improbable event, he didn’t believe the delegates should expect any more such miracles.
Near the end of the session, Ellsworth of Connecticut offered a compromise. In this oration, he mentioned the example of Holland to support his point. I include the whole speech because it formed the basis for our present system.

 Mr. ELLSWORTH moved, “that the rule of suffrage in the second branch be the same with that established by the Articles of Confederation.” He was not sorry, on the whole, he said, that the vote just passed had determined against this rule in the first branch. He hoped it would become a ground of compromise with regard to the second branch. We were partly national, partly federal. The proportional representation in the first branch was conformable to the national principle, and would secure the large States against the small. An equality of voices was conformable to the federal principle, and was necessary to secure the small States against the large. He trusted that on this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could on any other, and if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain, but worse than in vain. To the eastward, he was sure Massachusetts was the only State that would listen to a proposition for excluding the States, as equal political societies, from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right. An attempt to deprive them of it was at once cutting the body of America in two, and, as he supposed would be the case, somewhere about this part of it. The large States he conceived would, notwithstanding the equality of votes, have an influence that would maintain their superiority. Holland, as had been admitted (by Mr. MADISON), had, notwithstanding a like equality in the Dutch confederacy, a prevailing influence in the public measures. The power of self-defence was essential to the small States. Nature had given it to the smallest insect of the creation. He could never admit that there was no danger of combinations among the large States. They will like individuals find out and avail themselves of the advantage to be gained by it. It was true the danger would be greater if they were contiguous, and had a more immediate and common interest. A defensive combination of the small States was rendered more difficult by their greater number. He would mention another consideration of great weight. The existing Confederation was founded on the equality of the States in the article of suffrage, — was it meant to pay no regard to this antecedent plighted faith. Let a strong Executive, a Judiciary, and Legislative power, be created, but let not too much be attempted, by which all may be lost. He was not in general a half-way man, yet he preferred doing half the good we could, rather than do nothing at all. The other half may be added when the necessity shall be more fully experienced.


1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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