J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, August 06, 2011

Questions about the “Connecticut Compromise”

The July 2011 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography newly transcribes and reprints James Wilson’s notes from the Constitutional Convention’s Committee of Detail, which transformed six pages of resolutions into a twelve-page first draft of the Constitution ready for further debate and revision. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania also displays images from Wilson’s first and second drafts.

William Ewald and Lorianne Updike Toler of the University of Pennsylvania Law School prepared the new transcription and provided an introductory discussion of how historians of the Constitutional Convention has treated those documents:
Only after the Civil War did the scholarly study of the convention properly commence. In 1882 George Bancroft published the two volumes of his History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States of America. . . . Bancroft, a passionate defender of the Union, told the story of the convention as a dramatic struggle between the states, pitting the Virginia Plan [representation proportional to population] against the New Jersey Plan [equal representation to each state]. The convention (and, by extension, the nation) almost tore itself apart until [on 16 July 1787], in a very American gesture of reconciliation, a compromise was reached—which Bancroft was the first to call the “Connecticut Compromise.” . . .

The standard historiography, following the footsteps of Bancroft and [Max] Farrand, agrees in seeing the vote of July 16 as the defining moment of the convention and the work of the Committee of Detail as an episode of secondary importance. . . .

It is true that [James] Madison and Wilson both viewed the “Connecticut Compromise” as a major flaw, and many political scientists have criticized it for its violation of the democratic principle of “one-person-one-vote.” But whether one views it as a flaw or as a virtue, it is hard, two centuries after the event, to see it as a major flaw or a major virtue. It has given rise to no substantive litigation; votes in the Senate virtually never pit large states (as such) against small states (as such); and if it were replaced by a more Madisonian principle of representation, the American system of governance would still be recognizably the same. Like the Electoral College or the vice presidency, it is more of a quirk of the system than a central and defining feature.
But that quirk also has major unintended consequences. That quirky Electoral College was made to reflect the makeup of the Congress, with each state getting the same number of electors as it had representatives in the House and Senate combined. This gives small states disproportionate power in presidential elections. Though small states have never voted en bloc, the result can still skew elections undemocratically. In 1877, 1889, and 2001 a President and Vice President took office without, as the Declaration of Independence called it, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Unfortunately, fixing this flaw requires the support of a significant number of the states who receive disproportionately high power. So the Bancroftian story that the Connecticut Compromise was an American triumph lives.

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