The Connecticut Compromise was a proposal in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to create a bicameral legislature composed of a Senate, with equal representation of the states, and a House of Representatives apportioned according to population. This proposal helped solved the difficult dispute over whether the character of the national government should be confederal or national and how representation in Congress should be allocated. Representatives from the more populous states generally wanted representation to be based on population, as presented in the Virginia Plan. Representatives from the small states generally preferred a confederal approach where states enjoy equal representation in the legislature, as expressed in the New Jersey Plan. The Connecticut Compromise drew from each to create the bicameral U.S. Congress. The result is a national government that is neither wholly confederal nor wholly national, but a hybrid of federal and confederal elements never before seen in government.
The Connecticut Compromise created a distinct form of federal government. A confederal government is a federation with limited powers to direct the participating, sovereign states and no authority over the individual states’ citizens. A national government consolidates the states into a single government with authority over the states and their citizens. A federal system of government mixes these two distinct forms of government. The founders considered various versions of a federal system at the Constitutional Convention. The Virginia Plan proposed a federal system that divided and separated the powers and operations of the national and state governments so that the national government was of a purely national character, but states retained authority and responsibility over specific issues that the national government could not contravene. The Connecticut Compromise interjected federal elements (the equal representation of the states) into the national government and paved the way for other federal elements (such as the Electoral College) to be added as well (Zuckert 1986).
By giving the states equal representation in the Senate, the Connecticut Compromise appeared to give the states a significant role in checking and balancing power in the national government. Yet other constitutional provisions released senators from state control to act independently. Unlike representatives under the Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention, the Constitution requires that senators be paid by the national government, serve six-year terms (the longest of any elected federal official), and vote individually rather than as a state bloc. These three constitutional elements gave senators a certain independence from the state legislatures that elected them to deliberate with other senators and vote according to what they thought would benefit the states as members of the union. In other words, the structure of the Senate is federal, but the operations of the Senate are national (Malbin 1987).
Largely as a result of the Connecticut Compromise, the United States’ federal system has been referred to by some scholars and jurists as “a bundle of compromises.” Yet, the United States’ federal system of government is more than a bundle of compromises. Many of those attending the Constitutional Convention came away thinking that the federal system created by the Constitution was a “singular and remarkable” feat of achievement. John Dickenson, who proposed the Connecticut Compromise, wrote, “There is another improvement equally deserving regard, and that is, the varied representation of sovereignties and people in the constitution now proposed. It has been said, that this representation was a mere compromise. It was not a mere compromise. The equal representation of each state in one branch of the legislature, was an original substantive proposition.” The two strongest opponents of inserting federal elements into the national government, James Madison and James Wilson, later viewed this change positively. James Madison referred to the federal system as “a system without a precedent ancient or modern, a system founded on popular rights, and so combining a federal form with the forms of individual Republics, as may enable each to supply the defects of the other and obtain the advantages of both.” And James Wilson of Pennsylvania remarked, “I will confess that in the organization of this body a compromise between contending interests is discernible; and when we reflect how various the laws, commerce, habits, population and extent of the confederated States, this evidence of mutual concession and accommodation ought rather to command a generous applause, than to excite jealousy and reproach. For my part, my admiration can only be equaled by my astonishment in beholding so perfect a system formed from such heterogeneous materials.”
Without the Connecticut Compromise, it is very likely that the Constitutional Convention would have foundered. The Connecticut Compromise provided a means out of the impasse by conceiving of a unique form of government that mixed federal elements into a national government. By combining confederal and national government elements, the founders crafted a unique form of government that has become known as “federal government.”
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, “39,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (NewYork: New American Library, 1961); Michael J. Malbin, “Congress during the Convention and Ratification,” in The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution, ed. Leonard W. Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney, 185–208 (New York: Macmillan, 1987); and Michael Zuckert, “Federalism and the Founding: Toward a Reinterpretation of the Constitutional Convention,” Review of Politics 48 (1986): 166–210.
Troy E. Smith
Last updated: 2006
SEE ALSO: Articles of Confederation; Constitutional Convention of 1787; Electoral College; The Federalist Papers; Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; Seventeenth Amendment; State Legislatures; U.S. Congress; Virginia Plan