The Constitution: A Document of Compromises Both Great and Small
The United States Constitution was created in 1787 to replace America’s first constitution, known as the Articles of Confederation. These had proven largely ineffective in guaranteeing strong central government, shown especially through the lack of a coordinated response to Shays’ Rebellion.
The Constitution proper, “the supreme law of the land” that continues to govern the country even today first came into effect in March of 1789 after its ratification by the requisite number of states.
Getting the Constitution written, though, was no simple task.
In 1787, 55 delegates from all 13 states met to draft the document. As you might imagine, these 55 men all had varying opinions about what the new Constitution should look like and wanted to promote the interests of their own states. Plenty of debate ensued.
What emerged from all this deliberation and discussion was the foundation for a strong federal republic, with a few compromises thrown in to meet the demands of the various delegates, including three major ones: the Great Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the establishment of the Electoral College
In this article, we’ll focus on the Great Compromise.
The Great Compromise Definition and Explanation
The Great Compromise is also referred to as the Connecticut Compromise, so-called because it was proposed by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, two delegates from Connecticut. Simply put, the Great Compromise is why our Congress today has two houses: the lower chamber called the House of Representatives, and the upper chamber known as the Senate.
All the delegates present at the Constitutional Convention wanted to create a representative republic. The question, however, was “how many representatives should be apportioned to each of the 13 states?”
The idea was that states with more people should get more representatives, while states with lower populations would get fewer representations
It goes without saying that states with higher populations were fine with this idea.
The smaller states, on the other hand, felt it was unfair and wanted just as much representation as the larger states would have.
The constitutional convention was on the verge of collapse thanks to the issue
Enter the Great Compromise, which saved the day and solved the issue by creating two houses: a bicameral legislature.
Still, the proposal was only narrowly accepted.
What did it entail?
Well, the number of representatives each state would get in the House of Representatives would be based on that particular state’s population, while all states would be able to elect two members to the United States Senate. In other words, larger states have more power in the House of Representatives, but the largest and the smallest state have the same amount of power in the Senate.
Let’s take a look at how all this works today.
California, as the most populous state in the Union, has 53 representatives while seven states – Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Delaware, and Vermont – only have one.
However, both California with its nearly 40 million people, and Wyoming with its around 580,000 people have two seats in the Senate.
The number of members of the House of Representatives gets is determined every 10 years through the census, most recently conducted in 2020.
According to Article I, every state must have at least 1 representative, but there can not be more than 1 representative for every 30,000 people.
The House of Representatives threatened to become too large as the population of the country grew, and every 10 years Congress would make a law that stipulated the total number of representatives. Since 1963, the number of representatives has been fixed at 435.
As the population has grown, the power of smaller states has become more and more disproportionate in the Senate – small states can ask for more money from the federal government, for example, in exchange for voting on certain bills to get to the magic 51 number (more than half of 100, the total amount of senators) in order to pass it.
The Great Compromise was somewhat similar to the Three-Fifths Compromise – which counted 3/5 of enslaved people as part of a states’ population for purposes of the number of congresspeople allowed in the House of Representatives – in that it sought to satisfy two separate categories of states. In the case of the Three-Fifths Compromise, it was slaveholding and non-slaveholding states
The Great Compromise is written into Article I of the Constitution, which describes how the legislative branch functions.
The Great Compromise and the Electoral College
The Great Compromise also affects how the Electoral College works. Each state is assigned Electors based on the number of their House of Representatives and Senators combined. California, for example, has 55 electoral votes because they have 53 representatives and 2 senators. Montana (and the other six states mentioned earlier with only 1 representative) has 3 electoral votes because they have 1 representative and 2 senators.
All this directly affects where in the country presidential candidates choose to campaign – they’re going to focus on states that could vote Republican or Democrat (swing states) and that have a significant electoral count. Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, is a good example.
It is through the legislative branch (Congress) and the executive branch (the President, who is elected by the Electoral College) that the Great Compromise affects the United States today.
The Great Compromise is why the United States has two chambers in its legislature: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Collectively, these are referred to as the U.S. Congress. Members of the House of Representatives are typically referred to as “Congresspeople” – “Congressman” or “Congresswoman,” depending on gender – while members of the Senate are Senators.
The Great Compromise balances out concerns about representation based on population – although larger states have more power in the House of Representatives, all states have the same amount of power in the Senate.
All this ensures that every state is relevant when it comes to making laws that apply to the entire country – California can’t overpower Wyoming because, although they have (many) more Representatives in the House, they each have two senators.