List & Describe the Three Famous Compromises of the Constitutional Convention

List & Describe the Three Famous Compromises of the Constitutional Convention

The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia during the spring and summer of 1787, and was charged with replacing the Articles of Confederation with a more effective constitution. With 12 of the 13 states represented at the convention, regional, cultural and economic differences divided the proceedings. After lengthy debate, three major compromises were decided that shaped the foundation of the resulting U.S. Constitution.

1 Constitutional Convention Background

The U.S. Constitutional Convention was meant to replace the Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States between the Revolution and 1789. The Articles were widely considered to be an ineffective governing document. They established a very weak central government that had no ability to levy taxes or regulate trade. With the states retaining most power, they constantly bickered over borders, trade and commerce. In addition, states maintained their own Revolutionary War debt, which some states thought was unfair. Having realized that the Articles were insufficient, the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787 in Philadelphia, and 55 delegates from all states except Rhode Island attended.

2 The Connecticut Compromise

One of the most significant differences between the various states dealt with the apportionment of representation in the national Congress. Small states demanded a Congress where each state had equal representation. Large states, on the other hand, thought their larger populations meant they deserved greater representation in Congress. Virginia and New Jersey delegates hatched out opposing plans that threatened to sink the Constitutional Convention. Fortunately, Roger Sherman, a delegate from Connecticut, proposed his Connecticut Plan, also known as the Great Compromise. The plan created two separate houses in Congress: a House of Representatives that had proportional representation and a Senate with equal representation. This was a perfect compromise between the New Jersey and Virginia plans, and the convention narrowly accepted it on July 16.

3 Three-Fifths Compromise

With the Connecticut Compromise enacted, the convention needed to decide how to apportion seats in the House of Representatives. This was especially problematic to states in the South, where black nonvoting slaves sometimes accounted for a quarter or more of their total population. Southerners from slave-holding states thus wanted slaves to be counted in their total population, while Northerners objected to this idea. In the end, the convention agreed to count three-fifths of a slaveholding state's slave population toward its total population. While this Three-Fifths Compromise increased Southern representation in the House, it also meant that those states' slaves would be counted in population data used to levy taxes.

4 Slave Trade Compromise

Slavery reared its head in another way: some Northern abolitionists wanted to abolish the practice altogether. For the South, whose economy relied on slave labor for agricultural production, this was an unacceptable proposition. Southerners were concerned that they were giving power to a national government that could ban slavery at some point in the future. Therefore, the North and South worked out a Slave Trade Compromise that forbade Congress from banning the slave trade for 20 years. For the North, this meant the slave trade hypothetically could be banned in the future, while the South was given a 20-year grace period to continue the trade.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan,, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.