Constitution Daily

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Week in Review: The Constitutional Convention

June 8, 2012 by Benjamin Brown


It was 225 years ago that the Constitutional Convention started in earnest in Philadelphia. Our historical correspondent, Benjamin Brown, looks at the week that was in early June  1787.

One state, one vote. Seems fair, right? Not to delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania.

In its second week, the Constitutional Convention played with the idea of proportional representation in Congress. To make this a reality, Wilson tried to strike deals with other delegates to gain their support. Because of all these negotiations, Wilson was like the general manager of a sports team desperately trying to make a swap before the trading deadline.

Under the Articles of Confederation, each state received one vote. Wilson saw this as undemocratic because the system gave extra weight to the votes of smaller states at the expense of the larger ones, especially his home state of Pennsylvania.

The issue of proportional representation was one of the key democratic principles to Wilson.

“[A]s all authority was derived from the people, equal numbers of people ought to have an equal number of representatives,” he said. Wilson then asked, “Are not the citizens of Pennsylvania equal to those of New Jersey? Does it require 150 of the former to balance 50 of the latter?”

Wilson had more at stake than a midseason trade falling through. Infuriated by the Virginia Plan, one Delaware delegated suggested that if proportional representation were adopted, “it might become their first duty to retire from the Convention.” Made just five days in, this threat to abandon the convention was the first of many. It was imperative to keep everyone at the negotiating table.

The delegates did agree on a bicameral legislature, but there was still the question of how to allocate representation.

Wilson knew the larger states – Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Massachusetts – would buy into proportional representation, but the eight small states (New Hampshire and Rhode Island did not have delegates present at the time) would oppose it. In order to gain votes, Wilson started wheeling and dealing.

Wilson looked to Georgia and the Carolinas to make a deal because he had something they desperately wanted. His top trade chip was slavery, which the southern delegates desperately sought to protect.

On June 11, Wilson and the South Carolinians, led by John Rutledge, began to hammer out a plan that would give southern slaves partial representation. This made proportional representation much more appealing to the slave holding states because they could keep their slaves and gain political power through them. The agreement set the foundation for the Three-Fifths Compromise, under which slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person to allocate representation in the House of Representatives.

Like trades in sports, Wilson’s deal was criticized. Although the bargain was made to establish democracy, its protection of slavery made it a major part of the Constitution’s “covenant with death.”

Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and the assistant sports editor of the school newspaper. He is also in the Public Programs department of the National Constitution Center.

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