The body of representatives that assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 constituted the most important convention that has ever met in the United States.
The Great Convention convened on May 25 when a quorum of seven states was obtained; and, on the same day, George Washington was elected chairman of the proceedings. The Connecticut delegation, though, was not in attendance at the opening session. Oliver Ellsworth took his seat on May 28, Roger Sherman on May 30, and William S. Johnson arrived on June 2.
It is useful to classify the fifty-five delegates of the convention into “nationalists” and “federalists.” The former group felt that the central government should be empowered to coerce the states and their citizens. Many believed in a strong executive and judiciary rather than legislative dominance of the central government. The nationalists wanted the central government to administer the collection of taxes and the strict payment of public and private debts. Specifically, they wanted the national debt to be paid by Congress from its own revenues rather than requisitions on the states. Led by men such as Robert Morris, John Jay, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and James Madison, these “nationalists” sought to alter the very character of the Articles through a radical rewriting.
The “federalists,” on the other hand, felt that the central government should be subordinate to the states and controlled by them. In this way, each state would be able to retain its sovereignty and independence. They believed in the retention of the essential framework of the Articles but were willing to add new, specific and limited powers. On the crucial issue of the national debt, they favored an idea whereby the debt would be divided among the states. Led by men such as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Clinton, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry—who refused to attend the convention—end George Mason—who did, they feared that national payment of the war debt would result in the supremacy of the central government over the states.
On May 29, the convention began in earnest with the presentation of the “Virginia Plan” by Governor Edmund Randolph. In this blueprint for a national government were the following highlights:
(1) a scheme of representation based on financial contributions or the number of free inhabitants in a state.
(2) a bicameral legislature, the members of the first branch chosen by the people and the members of the second branch to be elected by those of the first.
(3) each branch to have the right to originate bills.
(4) the national legislature to have all the powers already vested in the Confederation Congress, plus those powers which the states were incompetent to exercise.
(5) the creation of a national executive.
(6) the creation of a national judiciary.
It was plain for all to see that what Randolph and the large states were proposing was the replacement of the Articles of Confederation. In its place would be created a strong national government that could be dominated by the most populous states. From May 30 to June 13, the entire convention debated the Plan. Finally, on June 15, the small states rallied to offer their own “New Jersey Plan,” delivered by William Paterson. Under this scheme there was proposed:
(1) a revision and improvement of the Articles.
(2) Congress to levy duties on imports.
(3) Congress to regulate trade.
(4) Congress to collect funds from states
not complying with requisitions.
(5) a plural national executive.
(6) a national judiciary.
When on June 19, the delegates rejected the New Jersey Plan, tempers flared and the continuance of the convention seemed in doubt. Shortly thereafter, the Connecticut delegation searched for a compromise. Oliver Ellsworth discussed a theme of equal representation in the upper house:
We were partly national, partly federal. The proportional representation in the first branch was comfortable to the national principle and would secure the large States against the small. An equality of voices was comfortable to the federal principle and was necessary to secure the Small States against the large.
By July 2, even Roger Sherman admitted “we are now at a full stop, and nobody he supposed meant that we should break up without doing something.” He thought that a special committee might come up with some solution.
His suggestion was followed, and Sherman was made a member of the committee. The compromise eventually hammered out by the committee stipulated that the lower house have suffrage based on population (one member per each 40,000) and in the upper house there would be equal representation. This was essentially the same proposal that Sherman had made on June 11 in the convention. He had then foreshadowed the “Connecticut Compromise” by suggesting,
that the proportion of suffrage in the 1st branch should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each State should have one vote and no more.
(figure available in print form)