<Constitutional Convention

Partly National, Partly Federal


On June 29, the delegates approved (6 in favor, 4 opposed, and 1 state divided) proportional representation in the House. The delegates then turned to Resolution 8 of the Revised Virginia Plan on representation in the second branch. Oliver Ellsworth introduced the “Connecticut Compromise”: equal representation of states in the second branch in exchange for proportional representation of population in the first branch.

As early as June 6, John Dickinson of Delaware had expressed a willingness to entertain popular election of the first branch of government as long as the states elected the second branch. On June 11, Roger Sherman of Connecticut bluntly stated that each state should have equal representation in the Senate “to protect itself; otherwise, a few large States will rule the rest.” This evoked a rare but gently worded protest from Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, who offered a careful demonstration that “it is equally in the power of the lesser States to swallow up the greater.” A combination of Senators from smaller states could easily thwart the proposals of the three largest states.

Sherman replied to these arguments on June 28, noting that equal representation in the second branch would protect the rights of the minority. “The question is, not what rights naturally belong to man, but how they may be most equally and effectually guarded in society. And if some give up more than others, in order to obtain this end, there can be no room for complaint. To do otherwise, to require an equal concession from all, if it would create danger to the rights of some, would be sacrificing the end to the means.” Yet Madison “entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle which was confessedly unjust, which could never be admitted, and if admitted must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever.”

Division over the issue of representation brought the Convention to “a full stop” by the end of June. The impatient Alexander Hamilton left the Convention and returned to New York on June 29th, not to return until early September. Yet this day also saw the restoration of the New Jersey coalition. It would vote with Connecticut, New York, Delaware, and Mr. Luther Martin from Maryland in yet another effort to resist proportional representation in both branches.

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut claimed that a substantive principle and not a mere compromise was involved. He announced the discovery of a new principle of dual representation: “We were partly national; partly federal.” He trusted “that on this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could take place on any other. And if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain but worse than in vain.”

The “great division” in America, responded Madison on June 30, is NOT “between the large and small States; it lay between the Northern and Southern” over “their having or not having slaves.” Accordingly, if we are interested in the balance of interests doctrine, we should be talking about balancing North and South rather than large and small States in the Senate.

On June 30, William Davie of North Carolina threw his weight behind Ellsworth’s newly discovered partly national, partly federal concept. He would lead the North Carolina delegation from the wholly national position it held in early June to a strong partly national, partly federal position by July 16. Benjamin Franklin’s papers indicate that on June 30 he too was attracted to the notion.

Loose talk of division and disunion came from Gunning Bedford of Delaware, who remained unconvinced that there was a third or middle way “between a perfect consolidation and a mere confederacy of the States.” He thought the attempt to compromise on the structure of the federal government was an illusion. He held out for adding powers to the government and leaving its structure alone. Nevertheless, Bedford was elected on Monday July 2 to the Gerry Committee to work out the very compromise that he found so objectionable on Saturday. He accepted the committee assignment.


June 29

In Convention. — Doctor JOHNSON.[1] The controversy must be endless whilst gentlemen differ in the grounds of their arguments; those on one side considering the States as districts of people composing one political society: those on the other, considering them as so many political societies. The fact is, that the States do exist as political societies, and a government is to be formed for them in their political capacity, as well as for the individuals composing them. . .

Mr. MADISON agreed with Doctor JOHNSON, that the mixed nature of the Government ought to be kept in view; but thought too much stress was laid on the rank of the States as political societies. There was a gradation, he observed, from the smallest corporation, with the most limited powers, to the largest empire, with the most perfect sovereignty. . . .

He entreated the gentlemen representing the small States to renounce a principle which was confessedly unjust; which could never be admitted; and which, if admitted, must infuse mortality into a Constitution which we wished to last forever. He prayed them to ponder well the consequences of suffering the Confederacy to go to pieces. . . .

Mr. ELLSWORTH moved, “that the rule of suffrage in the second branch be the same with that established by the Articles of Confederation.” [Representation was by states, rather than by population.] He was not sorry, on the whole, he said, that the vote just passed [representation in the first branch, which became the House of Representatives, would not be representation by states] had determined against this rule in the first branch. He hoped it would become a ground of compromise with regard to the second branch. We were partly national, partly federal. The proportional representation in the first branch was conformable to the national principle, and would secure the large States against the small. An equality of voices [among the states] was conformable to the federal principle, and was necessary to secure the small States against the large. He trusted that on this middle ground a compromise would take place. He did not see that it could on any other, and if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain, but worse than in vain. To the eastward, he was sure Massachusetts was the only State that would listen to a proposition for excluding the States, as equal political societies, from an equal voice in both branches. The others would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right. An attempt to deprive them of it was at once cutting the body of America in two, . . . The large States he conceived would, notwithstanding the equality of votes, have an influence that would maintain their superiority. Holland, as had been admitted (by Mr. MADISON), had, notwithstanding a like equality in the Dutch confederacy, a prevailing influence in the public measures. The power of self-defense was essential to the small States. Nature had given it to the smallest insect of the creation. He could never admit that there was no danger of combinations among the large States. They will like individuals find out and avail themselves of the advantage to be gained by it. It was true the danger would be greater if they were contiguous, and had a more immediate and common interest. A defensive combination of the small States was rendered more difficult by their greater number. He would mention another consideration of great weight. The existing Confederation was founded on the equality of the States in the article of suffrage, — was it meant to pay no regard to this antecedent plighted faith? Let a strong Executive, a Judiciary, and Legislative power, be created, but let not too much be attempted, by which all may be lost. He was not in general a half-way man, yet he preferred doing half the good we could, rather than do nothing at all. The other half may be added when the necessity shall be more fully experienced.

Mr. BALDWIN[2] could have wished that the powers of the general Legislature had been defined, before the mode of constituting it had been agitated. He should vote against the motion of Mr. ELLSWORTH, though he did not like the Resolution as it stood in the Report of the Committee of the Whole. He thought the second branch ought to be the representation of property, and that, in forming it, therefore, some reference ought to be had to the relative wealth of their constituents, and to the principles on which the Senate of Massachusetts was constituted. He concurred with those who thought it would be impossible for the General Legislature to extend its cares to the local matters of the States.

June 30

Mr. WILSON[3] did not expect such a motion after the establishment of the contrary principle in the first branch; and considering the reasons which would oppose it, even if an equal vote had been allowed in the first branch. The gentleman from Connecticut (Mr. ELLSWORTH) had pronounced, that if the motion should not be acceded to, of all the States north of Pennsylvania one only would agree to any General Government. He entertained more favorable hopes of Connecticut and of the other Northern States. He hoped the alarms exceeded their cause, and that they would not abandon a country to which they were bound by so many strong and endearing ties. But should the deplored event happen, it would neither stagger his sentiments nor his duty. If the minority of the people of America refuse to coalesce with the majority on just and proper principles; if a separation must take place, it could never happen on better grounds. The votes of yesterday against the just principle of representation, were as twenty-two to ninety of the people of America. Taking the opinions to be the same on this point — and he was sure, if there was any room for change, it could not be on the side of the majority — the question will be, shall less than one-fourth of the United States withdraw themselves from the Union, or shall more than three-fourths renounce the inherent, indisputable and unalienable rights of men, in favor of the artificial system of States? If issue must be joined, it was on this point he would choose to join it. The gentleman from Connecticut, in supposing that the preponderance secured to the majority in the first branch had removed the objections to an equality of votes [among the states] in the second branch for the security of the minority, narrowed the case extremely. Such an equality will enable the minority to control, in all cases whatsoever, the sentiments and interests of the majority. Seven States will control six: seven States, according to the estimates that had been used, composed twenty-four ninetieths of the whole people. It would be in the power, then, of less than one third to overrule two thirds, whenever a question should happen to divide the States in that manner. Can we forget for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States? Will our honest constituents be satisfied with metaphysical distinctions? Will they, ought they to, be satisfied with being told, that the one third compose the greater number of States? The rule of suffrage ought on every principle to be the same in the second as in the first branch. If the Government be not laid on this foundation, it can be neither solid nor lasting. Any other principle will be local, confined and temporary. . . . We talk of States, till we forget what they are composed of. Is a real and fair majority the natural hot-bed of aristocracy? It is a part of the definition of this species of government, or rather of tyranny, that the smaller number governs the greater. It is true that a majority of States in the second branch cannot carry a law against a majority of the people in the first. But this removes half only of the objection. Bad governments are of two sorts, — first, that which does too little; secondly, that which does too much; that which fails through weakness, and that which destroys through oppression. Under which of these evils do the United States at present groan? Under the weakness and inefficiency of its government. To remedy this weakness we have been sent to this Convention. If the motion should be agreed to, we shall leave the United States fettered precisely as heretofore; with the additional mortification of seeing the good purpose of the fair representation of the people in the first branch, defeated in the second. Twenty-four will still control sixty-six. He lamented that such a disagreement should prevail on the point of representation; as he did not foresee that it would happen on the other point most contested, the boundary between the general and the local authorities. He thought the States necessary and valuable parts of a good system.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The capital objection of Mr. WILSON, “that the minority will rule the majority,” is not true. The power is given to the few to save them from being destroyed by the many. If an equality of votes had been given to them in both branches, the objection might have had weight. Is it a novel thing that the few should have a check on the many? Is it not the case in the British Constitution, the wisdom of which so many gentlemen have united in applauding? Have not the House of Lords, who form so small a proportion of the nation, a negative on the laws, as a necessary defense of their peculiar rights against the encroachments of the Commons? No instance of a confederacy has existed in which an equality of voices has not been exercised by the members of it. We are running from one extreme to another. We are razing the foundations of the building, when we need only repair the roof. No salutary measure has been lost for want of a majority of the States to favor it. If security be all that the great States wish for, the first branch secures them. The danger of combinations among them is not imaginary. Although no particular abuses could be foreseen by him, the possibility of them would be sufficient to alarm him. But he could easily conceive cases in which they might result from such combinations. Suppose, that, in pursuance of some commercial treaty or arrangement, three or four free ports and no more were to be established, would not combinations be formed in favor of Boston, Philadelphia, and some port of the Chesapeake? A like concert might be formed in the appointment of the great offices. He appealed again to the obligations of the Federal pact, which was still in force, and which had been entered into with so much solemnity; persuading himself that some regard would still be paid to the plighted faith under which each State, small as well as great, held an equal right of suffrage in the general councils. His remarks were not the result of partial or local views. The State he represented (Connecticut) held a middle rank.

Mr. MADISON. It was urged, he said, continually, that an equality of votes in the second branch was not only necessary to secure the small, but would be perfectly safe to the large ones; whose majority in the first branch was an effectual bulwark. But notwithstanding this apparent defense, the majority of States might still injure the majority of the people. . . . He admitted that every peculiar interest, whether in any class of citizens, or any description of States, ought to be secured as far as possible. Wherever there is danger of attack, there ought to be given a constitutional power of defense. But he contended that the States were divided into different interests, not by their difference of size, but by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves. These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the United States. It did not lie between the large and small States. It lay between the Northern and Southern; and if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests. . . .

Mr. DAVIE was much embarrassed,[4] and wished for explanations. The Report of the Committee, allowing the Legislatures to choose the Senate, and establishing a proportional representation in it, seemed to be impracticable. There will, according to this rule, be ninety members in the outset, and the number will increase as new States are added. It was impossible that so numerous a body could possess the activity and other qualities required in it. Were he to vote on the comparative merits of the Report, as it stood, and the amendment, he should be constrained to prefer the latter. The appointment of the Senate by electors, chosen by the people for that purpose, was, he conceived, liable to an insuperable difficulty. The larger counties or districts, thrown into a general district, would certainly prevail over the smaller counties or districts, and merit in the latter would be excluded altogether. The Report, therefore, seemed to be right in referring the appointment to the Legislatures, whose agency in the general system did not appear to him objectionable, as it did to some others. The fact was, that the local prejudices and interests which could not be denied to exist, would find their way into the national councils, whether the Representatives should be chosen by the Legislatures, or by the people themselves. On the other hand, if a proportional representation was attended with insuperable difficulties, the making the Senate the representative of the States looked like bringing us back to Congress again, and shutting out all the advantages expected from it. Under this view of the subject, he could not vote for any plan for the Senate yet proposed. He thought that, in general, there were extremes on both sides. We were partly federal, partly national, in our union; and he did not see why the Government might not in some respects operate on the States, in others on the people. . . .

Doctor FRANKLIN. The diversity of opinions turns on two points. If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger. When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner, here, both sides must part with some of their demands, in order that they may join in some accommodating proposition. . . .

Mr. KING observed, that . . . he was . . . filled with astonishment, that, if we were convinced that every man in America was secured in all his rights, we should be ready to sacrifice this substantial good to the phantom of State sovereignty. That his feelings were more harrowed and his fears more agitated for his country than he could express; that he conceived this to be the last opportunity of providing for its liberty and happiness: that he could not, therefore, but repeat his amazement, that when a just government, founded on a fair representation of the people of America, was within our reach, we should renounce the blessing, from an attachment to the ideal freedom and importance of States. That should this wonderful illusion continue to prevail, his mind was prepared for every event, rather than sit down under a Government founded on a vicious principle of representation, and which must be as short-lived as it would be unjust. . . .

Mr. BEDFORD,[5] contended, that there was no middle way between a perfect consolidation, and a mere confederacy of the States. The first is out of the question; and in the latter they must continue, if not perfectly, yet equally, sovereign. If political societies possess ambition, avarice, and all the other passions which render them formidable to each other, ought we not to view them in this light here? Will not the same motives operate in America as elsewhere? If any gentleman doubts it, let him look at the votes. Have they not been dictated by interest, by ambition? Are not the large States evidently seeking to aggrandize themselves at the expense of the small? . . . The three large States have a common interest to bind them together in commerce. But whether a combination, as we supposed, or a competition, as others supposed, shall take place among them, in either case the small States must be ruined. We must, like Solon,[6] make such a government as the people will approve. Will the smaller States ever agree to the proposed degradation of them? It is not true that the people will not agree to enlarge the powers of the present Congress. The language of the people has been, that Congress ought to have the power of collecting an impost, and of coercing the States where it may be necessary. On the first point they have been explicit, and, in a manner, unanimous in their declarations. And must they not agree to this, and similar measures, if they ever mean to discharge their engagements? The little States are willing to observe their engagements, but will meet the large ones on no ground but that of the Confederation. We have been told, with a dictatorial air, that this is the last moment for a fair trial in favor of a good government. It will be the last, indeed, if the propositions reported from the Committee go forth to the people. He was under no apprehensions. The large States dare not dissolve the Confederation. If they do, the small ones will find some foreign ally, of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand, and do them justice. He did not mean, by this, to intimidate or alarm. It was a natural consequence, which ought to be avoided by enlarging the Federal powers, not annihilating the Federal system. This is what the people expect. All agree in the necessity of a more efficient government, and why not make such an one as they desire?

Mr. ELLSWORTH. Under a National Government, he should participate in the national security . . . but that was all. What he wanted was domestic happiness. The National Government could not descend to the local objects on which this depended. It could only embrace objects of a general nature. He turned his eyes, therefore, for the preservation of his rights, to the State Governments. From these alone he could derive the greatest happiness he expects in this life. His happiness depends on their existence, as much as a new-born infant on its mother for nourishment. If this reasoning was not satisfactory, he had nothing to add that could be so. . . .


  1. William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut
  2. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia
  3. James Wilson of Pennsylvania
  4. thrown into a state of confusion
  5. Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware
  6. ancient Athenian lawmaker and statesman