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The Connecticut Compromise

August 31, 2013

After the Revolutionary War, the 13 American states turned from military cooperation to commercial competition. It quickly became apparent that the Articles of Confederation lacked effective mechanisms for resolving disputes between states. So in September 1786, five states called for a constitutional convention to consider amendments to the Articles.

The convention was to begin on May 14, 1787, but due to the difficulty of 18th century travel, the convention convened 11 days late. Eager young James Madison arrived first, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the Virginia delegation. The Virginians occupied their time developing a proposal for an entirely new constitution that became known as the Virginia Plan.

Virginia being the most populous state at the time, the Virginia Plan not surprisingly favored large states: seats in both houses of Congress were to be allotted to the states according to their population. The plan was presented to the convention on May 29.

Smaller states’ delegations immediately saw that the larger states like Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts and New York would overpower the small states like Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Georgia. The small states countered the Virginia Plan with the New Jersey Plan, which called for continuation of the one-state, one-vote system of the Articles.

The dispute seemed to be beyond resolution, so the delegates set it aside while they worked on other issues. Only on July 23 did the convention adopt the Connecticut Compromise, which provided for proportional representation in the lower house and equal representation of the states in the upper house. With only two final tweaks (one being that revenue bills must originate in the lower house; the other being that a state’s senators would vote independently and not as a block), the Connecticut Compromise became the structure of the American legislature.

The Constitutional Convention made many compromises, large and small. Some of the large compromises have been undone by history,  like counting a slave as three-fifths of a person. I would suggest that the Connecticut Compromise was the most difficult and yet has been the most durable of the compromises made by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention 226 years ago.

To put it another way, the very existence of our Congress as we have always known it owes to compromise. The principles compromised were irreconcilable – equal representation of people versus equal representation of states. Compromise was possible only because there was something more important to both sides than even those important principles – the need to create a government competent to resolve disputes among states and to defend the country in disputes among nations.

It has become common among Tea Party-oriented Republicans to speak of compromise as an inherently bad thing. Prominent Republicans say they would reject a budget deal that raises taxes one dollar for every ten dollars in spending cuts. Prominent Republicans say they would reject a budget that funds Obamacare. Prominent Republicans say they would reject an increase in the national debt ceiling unless spending already budgeted is reduced by their desired amount.

Republicans are fighting for a smaller federal government, and the size of the federal government is an undisputedly important issue – although I come out pretty far on the other side of that issue than today’s mainstream Republicans. Shrinking government and expanding government are irreconcilable principles, and compromise is possible only if both sides share some other higher principle. Failure to agree on an increase in the debt ceiling will drive the country into default, increasing our borrowing costs and doing untold damage to our economy and our credibility, probably for years, if not decades to come. Failing to agree on a federal budget will leave programs unfunded, regardless which side favors the program – absent a budget, the government can buy neither guns nor butter.

Tea Party Republicans love to cast themselves as the last champions of the American Constitution, vesting it with nearly scriptural value. But the Constitution was not handed down fully written; it was negotiated by people who ardently held irreconcilable principles, people who made historic compromises between irreconcilable principles in the interests of a higher principle – the principle that a nation must have a government that works, that is competent to resolve disputes. The question to be decided in the fiscal battles of the next few months is whether our government commands sufficient respect from its people, much less its elected officials, that it remains capable of such basic functions as paying its debts and budgeting its revenues and expenditures.

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