July 16: Connecticut Saves the U S Constitutional Convention From Collapse


Today in 1787, the vision of a new federal government for the fledgling United States of America was saved from the scrap heap of history as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention narrowly voted to adopt a key provision advanced by delegates from Connecticut. That provision is known to history as the Connecticut Compromise or, alternately, the Great Compromise. It was, to be sure, a hard-fought compromise over representation that saved the gridlocked convention at Philadelphia from near certain collapse.

For weeks, delegates had been locked in an intractable debate over how to ensure that all 13 states — which varied greatly in size and population — would be represented fairly in a unified federal government. The two proposals under debate were the Virginia plan (favored by larger states) which argued that a state’s representation ought to be proportional to its population, and the New Jersey plan (favored by smaller states) that claimed all 13 states should have equal representation, regardless of population.

As the contentious debate raged on, some delegates wondered if their inability to agree on this critical issue meant the end of the Constitutional Convention — until Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth introduced an ingenious compromise that satisfied both sides of the debate.

Bradley Stevens. The Great Compromise, showing Oliver Ellsworth & Roger Sherman. U.S. Senate Collection.

The Connecticut Compromise proposed that the state be represented in a bicameral legislature consisting of two parts: a House where states would have representation proportional to their population size, and a Senate where each state would be represented equally.

Connecticut was the ideal state to broker such a compromise. Its 1662 Royal Charter had given it virtual independence as a colony more than a century before the American Revolution, and advocates from the Land of Steady Habits had actively held up its venerable approach to government as a model of stability for the new nation to follow. Notable among them was Noah Webster, who in a 1785 essay that influenced the decision to call a Constitutional Convention had argued that Connecticut showed “how power can be allocated among a central authority, subsidiary jurisdictions, and individual freeman in such a way as to insure both liberty and order. “Such a government,” he noted, “is of all others the most free and safe. The form is the most perfect on earth.”

The Connecticut Compromise was adopted by a single vote by the Convention delegates on July 16, 1787. Thanks to Connecticut’s two persuasive delegates, the gridlock that threatened the very survival of America’s “Great Experiment” was broken.

Further Reading

John Morrison, “The US Constitutional Convention: America Forms a Bicameral Legislature,” connecticuthistory.org

Senate Stories: A Great Compromise,” United States Senate website (senate.gov)