Even on a day when almost nothing happens, the course of American history can be set for more than two centuries.
One such day was July 17, 1787. The birth of the Connecticut Compromise is customarily dated to July 16, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved a fresh but flawed legislative system, as part of a broader package of provisions for the budding Constitution.
Prior to 10 a.m. on the 17th, delegates from the most populous states to the Convention gathered at what is now Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to assess the convention’s vote from the day before.
The Connecticut Compromise created a split form of government: Each member of the House of Representatives would represent the same number of Americans, on a proportionate basis, and each state would be represented by the same number of senators regardless of population.
More after the jump.
The compromise split the difference between the Virginia Plan for proportionate representation in both chambers and the response to the Virginia delegates, the New Jersey Plan. New Jersey’s delegates, afraid that the large states would overwhelm smaller states like New Jersey, demanded equal representation in all chambers.
Under Convention rules, each delegate had the right to raise any issue whenever they wanted, even after a decisive vote was taken. That means the issue could be reopened on any given day, and that day was July 17.
The main players of this caucus – Virginians James Madison and Edmund Randolph, Pennsylvanians James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, and Rufus King of Massachusetts – reopened the issue, however briefly. They met to discuss how to react to the July 16 vote on the basis of their insistence that both the House and Senate should represent the people on a proportionate basis.
As constitutional scholar Richard Beeman writes, Madison reported that “the time was wasted in vague conversation on the subject, without any specific proposition or agreement.”
In his book “Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution,” Beeman characterizes the outcome this way: “He discovered much to his chagrin that only a handful of delegates felt as strongly about the issue as he did, and no one was willing to risk the outcome of the Convention on it.”
So on March 4, 1789, the newly-revamped Congress convened in New York City for the first time at Wall and Nassau streets, eight blocks southeast of the future site of the demolished World Trade Center. Actually, it took roughly a month before either chamber had a quorum. Come April 30, George Washington was inaugurated at the same site as the first president of the United States.
Madison and the other four were apprehensive about a Senate where each state is authorized to send the same number of senators to Congress. As Beeman puts it, “They held the principled view that it was wrong to give any state government, be it a large state or a small one, too much weight and authority within the national government. The only way to avoid that injustice was to represent the people according to their numbers.”
History would repeatedly prove Madison and associates to be right. For example, the senators from New Jersey, Frank R. Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Maryland, Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, discovered in 2010 that the wealthy would retain their tax cuts and health-care reform would be watered down. Delaware Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Christopher A. Coons advocate for most of the same concerns affecting the three states.
Such lapses are mainly rooted in how the Senate is composed in combination with its much-abused filibuster rule.
More than two centuries earlier, the chief opponents of proportionate representation in the Senate represented Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Though Delaware ranks 45th in population with 844,000 residents, New Jersey now ranks 11th with 8.7 million people and Maryland is 19th, population 5.6 million, according to Census Bureau figures. With 19.5 million people, New York is now the third most populous state.
Many of the 37.5 million Americans from these states are paying today in large part because of the Connecticut Compromise.