The Great Compromise of 1787

A Congress Created

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Perhaps the greatest debate undertaken by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 centered on how many representatives each state should have in the new government's lawmaking branch, the U.S. Congress. As is often the case in government and politics, resolving a great debate required a great compromise. In this case, the Great Compromise of 1787. Early in the Constitutional Convention, delegates envisioned a Congress consisting of only a single chamber with a certain number of representatives from each state.

The burning question was, how many representatives from each state? Delegates from the larger, more populous states favored the Virginia Plan, which called for each state to have a different number of representatives based on the state’s population. Delegates from smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan, under which each state would send the same number of representatives to Congress.

Delegates from the smaller states argued that, despite their lower populations, their states held an equal legal status to that of the larger states, and that proportional representation would be unfair to them. Delegate Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware notoriously threatened that the small states could be forced to “find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.”

However, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts objected to the small states’ claim of legal sovereignty, stating that “we never were independent States, were not such now, and never could be even on the principles of the Confederation.

The States and the advocates for them were intoxicated with the idea of their sovereignty.”

Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman is credited with proposing the alternative of a "bicameral," or two-chambered Congress made up of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Each state, suggested Sherman, would send an equal number of representatives to the Senate, and one representative to the House for each 30,000 residents of the state.

At the time, all the states except Pennsylvania had bicameral legislatures, so the delegates were familiar with the structure of Congress proposed by Sherman.

Sherman’s plan pleased delegates from both the large and small states and became known as the Connecticut Compromise of 1787, or the Great Compromise.

The structure and powers of the new U.S. Congress, as proposed by the delegates of the Constitutional Convention, were explained to the people by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the Federalist Papers 52-66.

Apportionment and Redistricting

Today, each state is represented in Congress by two Senators and a variable number of members of the House of Representatives based on the state’s population as reported in the most recent decennial census. The process of fairly determining the number of members of the House from each state is called "apportionment."

The first census in 1790 counted 4 million Americans. Based on that count, the total number of members elected to the House of Representatives grew from the original 65 to 106. The current House membership of 435 was set by Congress in 1911.

Redistricting to Ensure Equal Representation 

To ensure fair and equal representation in the House, the process of “redistricting” is used to establish or change the geographic boundaries within the states from which representatives are elected.

In the 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the congressional districts in each state must all have roughly the same population.

Through apportionment and redistricting, high population urban areas are prevented from gaining an inequitable political advantage over less populated rural areas.

For example, were New York City not split into several congressional districts, the vote of a single New York City resident would carry more influence on the House than all of the residents in the rest of the State of New York combined.