What Was the Great Compromise? The Agreement and Its Impact

The Great Compromise of 1787 defined the structure of the brand new United States Congress. It continues to directly impact our federal government today. But what was the Great Compromise, and what did its proponents agree to? Keep reading for an overview of the Great Compromise and its lasting effect on American democracy.

US Constitution with gavel and We the People US Constitution with gavel and We the People

History of the Great Compromise

The United States Constitution was drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which took place from May 25-September 17, 1787. While we still use this important document every day, we don't always think about the arguments, agreements and compromises that the Constitutional delegates went through for each section. The Great Compromise, often called the Connecticut Compromise or the Sherman Compromise, is one of the more significant compromises of that period.

The Virginia Plan

With the Revolutionary War ending only a few years beforehand, many people had ideas about how to run the new United States government. Edmund Randolph of Virginia proposed a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature, which meant that two chambers of Congress would represent the people. It dictated that each state would have proportional representation — meaning that larger states would have more representatives than smaller states. Delegates James Madison of Virginia and Alexander Hamilton of New York both supported the Virginia Plan.

The New Jersey Plan

Smaller states, such as New Jersey and Delaware, didn't approve of the Virginia Plan. The South was growing at a faster rate than the North, and smaller states wouldn't have as much power in Congress. They argued that smaller states deserved the same amount of sovereignty as larger states. William Paterson of New Jersey proposed amending the existing Articles of Confederation to allow a one-vote-per-state structure in a unicameral (single-chamber) legislature. In the New Jersey Plan, each state would have one vote, no matter its size, and the amended Articles of Confederation would serve as the new Constitution.

Sherman's Plan: Coming to a Compromise

The larger states disliked the New Jersey Plan, and it was voted down on June 19. By July 2, the Convention was at a standstill over the decision, so the delegates sent the issue to committee. On July 5, the committee submitted a report based on a proposal from Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, known as The Great Compromise.


Details of the Great Compromise

The Great Compromise was approved on July 23, 1787. But what did the Great Compromise do? It included:

  • a bicameral legislature (from the Virginia Plan)
  • a lower house in which states would have proportional representation (from the Virginia Plan)
  • an upper house in which states would have one vote per state (from the New Jersey Plan)
  • revenue measures would come from the lower house (added by Benjamin Franklin to appease the larger states)

Leading delegates, including Rufus King of New York, opposed the compromise. However, they reached further consensus when the Convention voted to give Senators individual votes and longer terms, ensuring that states would be able to defend their independence in the federal government.

The Three-Fifths Compromise — and Repeal

Another compromise from the 1787 Constitutional Convention was known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. It stated that slave states could include three-fifths of their slave population in their total population, increasing the number of representatives they would have in the House of Representatives. The Northern states, which generally opposed slavery, settled for the compromise to get the Southern states to agree to the rest of the Great Compromise.

The Three-Fifths Compromise is mentioned in Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

It was repealed in 1868 with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment; however, the clause had long-lasting effects in the restriction of civil rights from Black Americans.


Modern Impact of the Great Compromise

We see the impact of the Great Compromise every day in the 21st century. The provisions in the Great Compromise made it into the U.S. Constitution. Even though the United States has amended the document over the last few centuries, many of the details from the Great Compromise are still intact.

  • The bicameral structure of the legislature is dictated by Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution: "All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives."
  • Article I, Section 2, Clause 1 stipulates that the lower house (the House of Representatives) will elect their own representatives: "The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature."
  • The allotment of representatives as one per 30,000 citizens in a state is directed in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3: "The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative ..."
  • The election of the Senate is the focus of Article 1, Section 3, Clause 1: "The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote."
  • Benjamin Franklin's proposal to have revenue measures come from the lower house became Article I, Section 7, Clause 1 (also known as the Origination Clause): "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills."

Whenever you vote for your U.S. Representative or Senator, remember the Great Compromise. It ensures that states stay as sovereign as possible, but still contribute to the well-being of the nation.

US Capitol building in Washington DC

A Monumental Moment in History

The Founding Fathers were only setting rules for 13 states when they formed the Great Compromise in 1787, but they knew that the country would expand in the years to come. We use these Constitutional conditions to keep our democracy working the way it was intended to work. Now that you understand more about the beginning of American government, learn more about famous American symbols and their histories. You can also continue your history lesson with over 30 fascinating facts about American presidents.