Orientation and Getting Started
The Creation of the Constitution
The Road to Philadelphia
Slavery and the Constitution
The Presidency
The Federal Judiciary
Some Other Important Details
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Reaching the Great Compromise

Delegates from large states continued to insist that the real danger from encroachment would arise from the state legislatures, and it was the federal government that needed protections from them. Those from small states continued to insist that state governments were the best preservers of liberty and more vulnerable than the federal government. “Each state,” said Sherman, “like each individual, had its peculiar habits, usages, and manners, which constituted its happiness. It would not, therefore, give to others a power over this happiness, any more than an individual would do, when he could avoid it.” Once again, Johnson stepped forward, on June 29, as the voice of moderation and compromise:

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. … On the whole, he 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

Since the United States would be neither wholly national nor wholly federal, the apportionment of representation in the legislature should, in a corresponding manner, be neither wholly proportional nor wholly equal. Johnson had for the first time expressed clearly the middle ground between the two extreme positions at the Convention, and he had expressed the formulation that would ultimately be used to defend the Constitution. Johnson was attempting to be the voice of reason amid the noisy clamor, but many at the Convention were not yet disposed to be reasonable. 

Lingering Disagreement

Instead, each side in the debate attempted to strong-arm the other. The large states hinted that—if they could not convince the small states to go along with proportionality in both branches—they were prepared to let the confederation fall to ruins and leave the small states to fend for themselves. And Gorham did not scruple to ask, “what would be the situation of Delaware in case of a separation of the states?” Wouldn’t Delaware be much more “at the mercy” of the large states if they were like foreign countries to one another? Bedford was not amused at this veiled threat, and issued one of his own. If the large states did dissolve the confederation, “the small ones will find some foreign ally, of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand, and do them justice.” These words smacked of treason, and many members expressed their outrage. Rufus King “was grieved that such a thought had entered his heart. He was more grieved that such an expression had dropped from his lips. … For himself, whatever might be his distress, he would never court relief from a foreign power.” 

After repeated expressions of indignation about the “rash language of Mr. Bedford” and his “rash policy of courting foreign support,” Bedford was forced to issue an apology, of sorts. His words, he said, had been misunderstood. Nonetheless, he repeated the warning that, in the event of a “breach of faith” on the part of the large states, “no man can foresee to what extremities the small states may be driven by oppression.” Bedford had issued his threat to seek foreign allies on June 30 and issued his apology on July 5. In between, the delegates had taken a day off, in order to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s independence from foreign oppression.

In the midst of this standoff, the large-state bulwark was developing fissures. On July 2, a proposal to give “each state one vote in the second branch” lost on a tied vote. Some members from the large states were forced to admit that the small states had a point. Massachusetts’ Nathaniel Gorham said he was “inclined to a compromise as to the rule of proportion. He thought there was some weight in the objections of the small states.” It was finally decided to refer the whole question of apportionment to a committee consisting of one member from each state.

The Grand Committee

The “Grand Committee” gave its report on the “Great Compromise” on July 5. The report specified that the first branch would be apportioned by the same rule of proportionality to which they had already agreed; the second branch would give to each state an equal vote; and (as a concession to the larger states) all bills for appropriating money should originate in the first branch. The report further stipulated that its parts could not be separated; instead, the Convention must vote on the report as an all-or-nothing proposition. Very few members from the large states were appeased by the “concession” of originating revenue bills in the branch that would represent population proportionally. Wilson remarked that, “as to the privilege of originating money bills, it was not considered by any as of much moment, and by many as improper in itself.” Madison later reckoned that, of the five states who had wanted proportional representation in the second branch, “a majority, viz., Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina, have uniformly voted against the proposed compensation, on its own merits, as rendering the plan of government still more objectionable.” After the Committee delivered its report, each side continued to insist on the justice of its respective position—often in the most acrimonious terms—for another eleven days. 

Reaching Compromise

Most members of the large-state coalition were unmoved by the olive branch, but it would only take a few defections to clasp hands on the deal. Massachusetts and North Carolina were two of the large states that had previously voted for proportional representation in both houses, but both states had members who expressed an openness to compromise. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina was especially concerned to see that the Constitution would not destroy the federalism of the old compact; he “professed himself a friend to such a system as would secure the existence of the state governments. The happiness of the people depended on it.” His tar-heel colleague, William Davie, had to admit that “local prejudices and interests” would continue to exist, “whether the representatives should be chosen by the legislatures or by the people themselves.” He began to be persuaded by the compromise position described by Johnson: “We were partly federal, partly national, in our union; and he did not see why the government might not in some respects operate on the states, in others on the people.” Massachusetts’ Elbridge Gerry agreed with his Southern colleague that their confederation was “in a peculiar situation. We were neither the same nation, nor different nations. We ought not, therefore, to pursue the one or the other of these ideas too closely.” And Caleb Strong was among the few who believed that “the small states had made a considerable concession, in the article of money bills, and that they might naturally expect some concessions on the other side. From this view of the matter, he was compelled to give his vote for the report taken altogether.” 

With the reversals of these four men—which had the effect of winning over the vote from North Carolina and splitting the vote from Massachusetts (New York no longer had a vote after two of its delegates had left in a huff)—the small states secured their compromise by a 5-4 vote on July 16. The majority now believed that the Virginia Plan had formed a government that was too nationalistic. What most of the Framers wanted was a Constitution that reflected their “peculiar situation” as a union that was “partly federal, partly national.” This was the formula that was born out of these debates and the one that was ultimately accepted by the Constitution’s defenders (it was expressed perhaps most famously in Madison’s Federalist No. 39). Nonetheless, the compromise was neither immediately nor graciously embraced by the other members from the large states, Madison first among them, who considered themselves to be on the losing side of the compromise.

Partly Federal and Partly National

Immediately following the decisive vote on representation, the delegates proceeded to deliberate on the nature and extent of powers that should be given to the new Congress. It became clear that—now that the issue of representation was settled—certain members from both sides of the debate were ready to rethink their original position on the degree of power to be exercised by this novel “partly federal, partly national” government. Many members from the small states were now ready to place more trust (and more powers) in this new government, a government which would protect their interests as states. And some members from the large states now expressed misgivings about giving so much power to a legislature that would still be “partly federal” in its structure—and hence could not be expected to always act for the good of the whole. 

The final deal was a compromise between the interests of the small states and the large states, but it was also a compromise between the federalism that had existed under the Articles of Confederation and the nationalism that had stamped the original Virginia Plan. The delegates could not decide on the proper division of representation until they had decided what kind of union they were going to be. Other features in the Constitution reinforced the “partly federal, partly national” character of the Constitution. The powers of the new Congress would be broad, but not indefinite. The first house would be chosen directly by the people; the second house would be chosen by the state legislatures (to keep the senators closely aligned to state interests, as such). The first house would be elected for two years (to keep them responsive to the people’s will); members of the second house would serve for six years and would not be subject to recall (to keep them more independent of the state legislatures than they had been under the Articles). And finally, the salary of all the legislators would be paid out of the national treasury (once again, to secure their independence from state influence). These features recognized the legitimacy to be found in the competing claims of both sides of the question and a growing consensus over the kind of nation they were forming.