5 Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention

Illustration depicting the Constitutional Convention with text listing the key compromises

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The original governing document of the United States was the Articles of Confederation, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777 during the Revolutionary War before the United States was officially a country. This structure combined a weak national government with strong state governments. The national government could not tax, could not enforce the laws it passed, and could not regulate commerce. These and other weaknesses, along with an increase in national feeling, led to the Constitutional Convention, which met from May to September 1787.

The U.S. Constitution it produced has been called a "bundle of compromises" because delegates had to give ground on numerous key points to create a Constitution that was acceptable to each of the 13 states. It was ultimately ratified by all 13 in 1789. Here are five key compromises that helped make the U.S. Constitution become a reality.

Great Compromise

Signing the Constitution

MPI / Archive Photos / Getty Images

The Articles of Confederation under which the United States operated from 1781 to 1787 provided that each state would be represented by one vote in Congress. When changes were being discussed for how states should be represented during the creation of a new Constitution, two plans were pushed forward.

The Virginia Plan provided for representation to be based on the population of each state. On the other hand, the New Jersey Plan proposed equal representation for every state. The Great Compromise, also called the Connecticut Compromise, combined both plans.

It was decided that there would be two chambers in Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate would be based on equal representation for each state and the House would be based on population. This is why each state has two senators and varying numbers of representatives.

Three-Fifths Compromise

Seven African-Americans preparing cotton for a gin in South Carolina in 1862

Library of Congress / Public Domain

Once it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives was to be based on population, delegates from Northern and Southern states saw another issue arise: how enslaved people should be counted.

Delegates from Northern states, where the economy did not rely heavily on the enslavement of African people, felt that enslaved people should not be counted toward representation because counting them would provide the South with a greater number of representatives. Southern states fought for enslaved individuals to be counted in terms of representation. The compromise between the two became known as the three-fifths compromise because every five enslaved people would be counted as three individuals in terms of representation.

Commerce Compromise

The Commerce Compromise was one of the key compromises of the Constitutional Conventional.

Howard Chandler Christy / Wikimedia Commons / PD US Government

At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the North was industrialized and produced many finished goods. The South still had an agricultural economy, and still imported many finished goods from Britain. Northern states wanted the government to be able to impose import tariffs on finished products to protect against foreign competition and encourage the South to buy goods made in the North and also export tariffs on raw goods to increase revenue flowing into the United States. However, the Southern states feared that export tariffs on their raw goods would hurt the trade upon which they heavily relied.

The compromise mandated that tariffs were only to be allowed on imports from foreign countries and not exports from the U.S. This compromise also dictated that interstate commerce would be regulated by the federal government. It also required that all commerce legislation be passed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which was a win for the South since it countered the power of the more populous Northern states.

Compromise on Trade of Enslaved People

Slave trade building located on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, Georgia.

Library of Congress / Public Domain

The issue of enslavement ultimately did tear the Union apart, but 74 years before the start of the Civil War this volatile issue threatened to do the same during the Constitutional Convention when Northern and Southern states took strong positions on the issue. Those who opposed the enslavement of African people in the Northern states wanted to bring an end to the importation and sale of enslaved individuals. This was in direct opposition to the Southern states, which felt that the enslavement of African people was vital to their economy and did not want the government interfering.

In this compromise, Northern states, in their desire to keep the Union intact, agreed to wait until 1808 before Congress would be able to ban the trade of enslaved people in the U.S. (In March 1807, ​President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill abolishing the trade of enslaved people, and it took effect on Jan. 1, 1808.) Also part of this compromise was the fugitive slave law, which required Northern states to deport any freedom seekers, another win for the South.

Election of the President: The Electoral College

George Washington

SuperStock / Getty Images

The Articles of Confederation did not provide for a chief executive of the United States. Therefore, when delegates decided that a president was necessary, there was a disagreement over how he should be elected to office. While some delegates felt that the president should be popularly elected, others feared that the electorate would not be informed enough to make that decision.

The delegates came up with other alternatives, such as going through each state's Senate to elect the president. In the end, the two sides compromised with the creation of the Electoral College, which is made up of electors roughly proportional to population. Citizens actually vote for electors bound to a particular candidate who then votes for the president. 

Sources and Further Reading

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Kelly, Martin. "5 Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/compromises-of-the-constitutional-convention-105428. Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). 5 Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/compromises-of-the-constitutional-convention-105428 Kelly, Martin. "5 Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/compromises-of-the-constitutional-convention-105428 (accessed May 29, 2023).