Sherman's Great Compromise: Roger Sherman's Brilliant Proposal Saved the 1787 Constitutional Convention from a Hopeless Deadlock and Safeguarded against Centralization of Power at the Federal Level

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The stifling early summer heat in Philadelphia seemed apropos for the increasingly heated debate among the Constitutional Convention delegates. By early June 1787, the convention appeared hopelessly deadlocked. Delegates from the larger states wanted the new Constitution to apportion congressional representation by population, while those from the smaller states wanted to continue congressional representation by states as under the Articles of Confederation.

Virginia's James Madison and New York's Gouverneur Morris led the argument for representation by population. Madison called pure representation of the states "unjust" and "did not conceive any effectual system could be substituted on any other basis than that of a proportional suffrage."

Delegates from the smaller states countered that their states "may be injured at pleasure without redress," in the words of Delaware's Gunning Bedford Jr. "In this case Delaware would have about one-ninetieth for its share in the general councils; whilst Pennsylvania and Virginia would possess one-third of the whole," Bedford pointed out. "Is there no difference of interests, no rival ship of commerce, of manufactures? Will not these large States crush the small ones, whenever they stand in the way of their ambitious or interested views? This shows the impossibility of adopting such a system as that on the table, or any other founded on a change in the principle of representation."

More than any other issue, the great debate as to how to apportion representation in Congress threatened to break apart the Convention before it could produce a new Constitution.

On Monday, June 11. Roger Sherman, Connecticut's senior delegate, proposed a compromise that, he hoped, would protect the smaller states while giving representation to each man. He proposed a bicameral legislature where "the proportion of suffrage in the first branch [the House of Representatives] should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch, or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more."

Before Sherman had submitted his proposal, Benjamin Franklin had written a letter warning against hot-headed debate about congressional representation. After the proposal was submitted, Franklin asked that James Wilson read his letter, which stated: "[T]ill this point, the proportion of representation, came before us, our debates were carried on with great coolness and temper. If any thing of a contrary kind has on this occasion appeared, I hope it will not be repeated; for we are sent here to consult, not to contend, with each other; and declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us."

Not surprisingly, Sherman's proposal, which became known as the "Connecticut Compromise," or the Great Compromise, was met with a flurry of spirited and tense debate. "Everything," Sherman warned the delegates in his stunted style, "depended on this. The smaller states would never agree to the plan on any other principle than an equality of suffrage in this branch."

The 66-year-old Sherman was an old hand at the workings of Congress. He had logged in more time as a congressman than any other man, serving from the first Continental Congress in 1774 every year through 1784, except for 1782. In 1776, when the Continental Congress was drawing up the Articles of Confederation, Sherman had suggested a similar arrangement. But the Continental Congress of 1776 was then more interested in promoting independence for the states that had broken away from Great Britain than in forming a strong union among those states. Perhaps no man was more aware of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, and more convinced of the need for a stronger union, than Sherman. "The question is, not what rights naturally belong to man," he told the delegates, "but how they may be most equally and effectually guarded in society. …