How the Great Compromise Saved a Fledgling United States

By: Dave Roos  | 
Committe of Five
The Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence included (from left) Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and John Adams. Printed by Currier & Ives (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1787, delegates from 12 of the 13 states met in Philadelphia to fix America's faltering first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Over four muggy months, 55 delegates debated and sparred over some of the most divisive issues of the day: state versus federal power, how much influence to grant the president and how to distribute seats in Congress.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was almost a catastrophe. The political divide between large states and small states, federalists and anti-federalists seemed too wide to bridge, and the entire American experiment teetered at the brink of collapse.


That was until two delegates from Connecticut found a middle ground in one of the most contentious fights and won a last-minute compromise by one vote. The Great Compromise or "Connecticut Compromise" of July 16, 1787 might have saved not only the Constitutional Convention, but also the young nation itself.

Roger Sherman, the Greatest Founding Father You've Never Heard Of

Roger Sherman
Roger Sherman was one of the architects of the Great Compromise which advocated for proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal seats in the Senate.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Roger Sherman, the lead architect of the Great Compromise, should be mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Not only did the Connecticut delegate broker the deal that saved the Constitutional Convention, but Sherman was the only Founding Father to sign all four documents of the American Revolution:

  • the Articles of Association (adopted 1774)
  • the Declaration of Independence (1776)
  • the Articles of Confederation (1781)
  • the United States Constitution (1787)

A devout Calvinist who was 66 years old at the time of the Constitutional Convention, Sherman earned the nickname "Father Sherman" from the younger delegates. But whenever there was an important committee to fill or document to write, Sherman was picked. During the Second Continental Congress, Sherman was one of the Committee of Five tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence.


"Not only did Sherman sign everything, he was intimately involved in drafting these core texts," says Mark David Hall, a politics professor at George Fox University and author of "Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic." "If you asked anyone in 1776, 'Who's the most important person in the Continental Congress?' Thomas Jefferson wouldn't come to mind at all. Sherman would be in the handful at the top."


The Fight for Congressional Representation

To understand what Sherman accomplished with the Great Compromise, first we have to set the stage.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States was less of a unified nation than a loose confederation of states. The central government was extremely weak with almost all real political power vested in the states. There was no president (no executive branch at all, actually) and no way for the central government to levy taxes to repay its crippling war debts.


But arguably the biggest issue was Congress. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress consisted of one chamber with representatives from the 13 states getting one vote each on any proposed legislation. In other words, tiny Rhode Island's vote counted as much as mighty New York's or Virginia's vote.

To the larger, more populous states, that arrangement seemed radically unfair. So, one of the first challenges faced by the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was coming up with a new plan for Congress.

But how would seats in this new Congress be apportioned among the 13 states? Should each state have an equal vote, or should the number of seats in Congress be proportional to each state's population? That was the question that drove the delegates nuts.


The Virginia Plan vs. the New Jersey Plan

James Madison from big-state Virginia struck first. Under his "Virginia Plan," the Constitution would allow for a more powerful central (or federal) government composed of three branches: the executive, judicial and legislative. Congress, the legislative branch, would consist of two houses (aka a bicameral legislature): an upper chamber (the Senate) and a lower chamber (the House of Representatives).

Critically, Madison's Virginia Plan proposed that seats in both the Senate and the House be allocated according to the state's population, which meant that a big state like Virginia would wield 10 times the voting power of a small state like Delaware.


"All of the large states loved the Virginia Plan," says Hall. "The small states said, 'You've got to be kidding us! We have equal representation under the Articles of Confederation.'"

The small states struck back with the "New Jersey Plan," proposed by delegate William Paterson of New Jersey. Under the New Jersey Plan, Congress would have remained pretty much the same as it was under the Articles of Confederation — a single chamber with each state getting an equal vote.


The Connecticut Compromise

That's when Sherman and his fellow Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth stepped into the fray.

As it happens, the delegates from Connecticut were particularly well suited to strike a compromise between the warring factions. In terms of population, Hall says, Connecticut ranked exactly in the middle. There were six states larger than Connecticut and six states that were smaller.


Sherman and Ellsworth proposed a compromise. Let there be two chambers in Congress, just as Madison wanted with the Virginia Plan. But under Sherman and Ellsworth's compromise plan, each chamber would allocate its seats differently. In the House, voting would be proportional, with more populous states getting more seats. In the Senate, voting would be equal, with each state — both big and small — getting the same number of representatives, exactly two seats.

"It was a quintessential compromise," says Hall. "Everyone got something they wanted, but they also had to swallow something they didn't like."

The Connecticut Compromise was sent to the committee to hash out the details, and on July 16, 1787, it was put to a vote. The convention adopted the compromise proposed by a very slim margin of five to four. (Why only nine votes? Of the 13 states, Rhode Island chose not to attend the Constitutional Convention. For this vote, New York and New Hampshire were absent, and the Massachusetts delegates were split, leaving just nine states to make this momentous decision.)

When the Connecticut Compromise was reached, it proved to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention that even the deepest divides could be bridged. Other compromises were then struck about critical issues such as how to apportion House seats and electoral votes in states where slavery was legal. Sherman also played a role in drafting the notorious "three-fifths compromise" that was necessary to secure the Constitution's ratification by southern states.


Why Was Sherman Forgotten?

While scholars of American history certainly know about Roger Sherman, most Americans wouldn't even recognize his name. Hall says there are several reasons why Sherman's important legacy has been forgotten.

For starters, Sherman was already quite old when the Constitution was ratified in 1787 and he died not long after in 1793. In that time, he served as both a representative and senator from Connecticut, but he didn't live long enough to serve as president (unlike the better-known Jefferson, Madison and John Adams).


Also, while Sherman was a deep thinker and a convincing negotiator, he wasn't an eloquent speaker or a prolific writer, so we're left with very few of his words.

"The Founding Fathers we tend to know kept copious records," says Hall. "The Adams family papers take up 90 volumes. I edited the collected works of Roger Sherman — anything we could find, including letters and speeches in the House of Representatives — and it all fit into one volume. There's simply a lot less to work with."