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Compromise at the Constitutional Convention

It is relatively common for Americans to view the Constitution as sacrosanct and immutable. Few Americans seem to realize that the document they revere is a network of compromises made between men who often had vastly different opinions on how the new government should function. Some of those men even came to regret some of the trade-offs that made the Constitution possible. Let’s look at a few of the more significant compromises made during the Constitutional Convention.

One of the most divisive issues at the Convention was also one of the most fundamental: representation. Delegates from the larger states believed that a state’s representation in Congress should be proportional to its population, which would benefit states with larger populations, like Virginia, which had the largest population at the time. Smaller states feared that this would lead to dominance by numerically superior states and proposed that each state have equal representation, regardless of population.

The disagreement over representation had the potential to derail the entire enterprise since delegates on either side of the issue vowed to reject the Constitution if the other side prevailed. The solution to the problem came in the form of the Great Compromise, which created a bicameral Congress. Each state would have two representatives in the upper house, or Senate, regardless of its population. In the lower house, or House of Representatives, a state’s representation would be based on population. This solution still left a problem; however, how would enslaved people be counted for representation purposes? The Southern states favored counting slaves, as it would give them more of a voice in Congress, even though slaves were not considered citizens. Northern delegates, on the other hand, did not believe that slaves should be counted because doing so would, in their opinion, give Southern states an unfair advantage. The controversy was settled with the Three-Fifths Compromise, which stated that three of every five enslaved persons would be counted for representation and taxation, a decision that left many Northern delegates angered and still gave Southern states more sway in Congress than many people felt they should have. Combined with the electoral college, in which the combined number of senators and representatives establishes each state’s number of electors, the three-fifths compromise ensured that Southern, slaveholding states would have a disproportionate amount of influence in Congress for years to come.

Though the word slave was never actually used in the Constitution, the issue of slavery pervaded the Convention. Many of the Northern delegates opposed the institution and wanted to ban it in the Northern states. Southern delegates (roughly half of the delegates were slaveowners) felt that slavery was essential to the region’s economy and were equally committed to ensuring that the government did not interfere with the institution. Delegates reached an agreement that the importation of slaves into the US would cease in 1808, twenty years after the Convention. When that time came, they knew most of the men involved in the compromise would likely be dead or too old to serve in the government, and the problem would be left for another generation to solve. The scourge of chattel slavery would continue for nearly a century longer until the Civil War and the passage of the thirteenth amendment brought it to an end. The struggle for equality and civil rights continues to this day.  

It is important to remember that the Constitution is a living document, born of compromise and created by imperfect men. The framers were aware of this and so provided a mechanism for altering the Constitution when necessary. Their antiquated societal beliefs aside, they have taught us that, through compromise, we can help to build the ‘more perfect union’ they envisioned for us.