A Senate of the States: July 16th, 1787

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The Connecticut Compromise. Roger Sherman of Connecticut was another delegate largely forgotten by history. Born to a self-described ‘low condition’, he started off as a shoemaker, subsequently founded prosperous mercantile businesses, and became a judge and town mayor. At sixty-six, he was the second oldest delegate behind Benjamin Franklin. But unlike Franklin, Sherman’s grating personality often diminished the value of his ideas. Since June 6th, Sherman not only recognized the necessity of state participation in the new government, but consistently advocated an equality of state suffrage, of retaining the confederation’s congressional structure.1

In something of a parliamentary game of chicken, the generally smaller/low population states dug in and did not budge from their demand of equal representation. James Madison, who likewise refused to budge from proportional representation in both legislative houses, was prepared to risk dissolution of the convention over this issue. History can thank Massachusetts, which heretofore voted with the large state bloc, for putting the small state coalition over the top.2

Key elements of the Connecticut Compromise:

• Assignment of the initial numbers of reps in the House of Representatives.
• Treatment of new states.
• A decennial census.
• Count 3/5 of slaves for the purposes of taxation and representation in the house.
• Money bills/appropriations to originate in the house; unamendable by the senate.
• Equal state representation in the senate.

The conciliation of July 16th assured completion of the convention. Contentious issues remained, but the atmosphere of the convention settled down, not immediately, but soon thereafter as delegates from states large/small, north/south, soon calculated that they had the capacity to protect their essential interests. They had found the middle way between an ineffective confederation and thorough consolidation in a national government.

So, an all-important piece to the jigsaw puzzle of a new form of republican government fell into place today. Along the way, the convention considered and rejected several alternatives to their senate of the states. A proposal which I found intriguing, yet was probably impractical and ultimately dangerous, was to allow proportional voting in the senate for bills that affected the people, and parity of votes for matters that impacted the corporate states. Had this compromise passed, imagine its abuse in the hands of creative politicians. Instead, the convention carefully fitted two adjacent pieces of the Constitution’s puzzle – the house and senate, and they did it right.

Now that they had established the structure of the new congress, the convention began to work on enumerated powers. It passed, without opposition, the first clause of the 6th Resolution of the Virginia Plan, “that the national Legislature ought to be empowered to enjoy the legislative rights vested in Congress by the Confederation.”

Governor Randolph interrupted the proceedings when discussion began in earnest on the next clause, “. . . and moreover to legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent: or in which the harmony of the United States may be interrupted by the exercise of individual legislation.”

Despite the Connecticut Compromise settlement, large states were nonetheless shell-shocked, and so disturbed that several delegates contemplated dissolving the convention by adjourning sine die. To the very end of the convention, Madison considered their work a failure because the Constitution retained the confederation’s deadly shortcoming of equal state representation.

Madison wrote that several large state delegates, “supposed that no good government could or would be built on that foundation,” and we so infuriated as to consider abandoning the convention to propose another plan of government on their own; one that represented the majority of the people of America. Most inclined to yield to the smaller states, and to concur in such an act however imperfect and exceptionable, as might be agreed on by the convention as a body, although decided by a bare majority of states and by a minority of the people of the United States.

As the historian Lance Banning wrote:3

Nearly all agreed, as well, that what they wanted in a senate was a body that would not only stand at a sufficient distance from the people and the lower house to check majority oppression, but one chosen in a manner that would not offend the democratic precepts of the Revolution.

Despite the misgiving of James Madison and Governors Randolph and Rutlidge, recognition of the states as essential political realities and checks on wild democracy, led to a thriving United States, the envy of the world.

1. Unger, H. G. (2007). America’s Second Revolution – How George Washington Defeated Patrick Henry and Saved the Nation. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 50.

2. The entire report passed. Barely. 5-4-1.
Aye: CN, NJ, MD, DE, NC
Nay: PA, VA, SC, GA
Divided: MA
Absent: NY, NH, RI.

3. Banning, L. (1995). The Sacred Fire of Liberty – James Madison and the Founding of the Federal Republic. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 157.

General Reference: Madison, J. (1966). Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Chicago: Ohio University Press.

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