Key Compromises of the Constitutional Convention

Creating the US Constitution through Compromise

The US Constitution has been called a "bundle of compromises" due to the fact that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had to compromise on numerous key points in order to create a new Constitution that was acceptable to each of the states. Following is a list of the key compromises that helped make the US Constitution become a reality.

Great Compromise

1787: The painting Signing the Constitution of the United States by Thomas Pritchard Rossiter. The painting, painted in 1878, resides at Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The Articles of Confederation under which America operated from 1781-1787 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 wanted 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 and the House would be based on population.

Three-Fifths Compromise

Seven African-Americans are preparing cotton for a gin in South Carolina.
Seven African-Americans are preparing cotton for a gin in South Carolina. 1862. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-0159 DLC

Once it was decided that representation in the House of Representatives as to be based on population, delegates from Northern and Southern states had a difference of opinion on how slaves should be counted. Delegates for the Northern states where the economy did not rely heavily on slavery, felt that slaves should not be counted towards representation. This would provide the South with a greater number of representatives. On the other hand, Southern states fought for slaves to be counted in terms of representation. The compromise between the two became known as the three-fifths compromise because every five slaves 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.
The Commerce Compromise was one of the key compromises of the Constitutional Conventional. Howard Chandler Christy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Northern interests wanted the government to be able to impose tariffs on goods in order to protect against foreign competition. However, the Southern states feared that tariffs on their goods would hurt the trade upon which they heavily relied. The compromise was for imports to be only allowed on imports from foreign countries and not exports from the US.

Slave Trade Compromise

Slave trade building located on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, Georgia.
This image shows a building located on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, Georgia that was used for the slave trade. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B8171-3608 DLC

Those who opposed slavery in the northern states wanted to bring an end to the importation and sale of slaves. On the other hand, southern states felt that slavery was vital to their economy and did not want the government interfering in the slave trade. In the end, the North agreed to wait until 1808 before Congress would be able to ban the slave trade in the US.

Election of the President

Portrait of President George Washington
Portrait of President George Washington. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZ62-7585 DLC
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 or she 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 a wide decision. They 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. Thus, the citizens vote for electors who then vote for the president.