By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Elbridge Gerry was the chair of the Grand Committee that had met to resolve the deadlock between the Virginia and New Jersey Plans for a national government. His report of the Grand Committee was followed by accusations and objections. The Convention, however, did eventually come to a settlement.
Accusation against the Grand Committee
James Wilson accused the Grand Committee of having exceeded their powers and James Madison was furious.
“The Convention,” Madison said, “was reduced to the alternative of either departing from justice”—which is what he now insisted proportional representation in Congress to consist of—“in order to conciliate the smaller States, or of displeasing these by justly gratifying the larger States and the majority of the people.”
Making concessions like this to the small states was merely to perpetuate the problems which had brought them all to the Convention in the first place.
“It was in vain,” Madison warned, “to purchase concord in the Convention on terms which would perpetuate discord among their Constituents.” Do not be deceived, Madison warned, by threats from the small-staters to break up the Union.
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Defence by Gerry
Gerry, in fact, defended the bargain precisely because it was a bargain, and the only bargain that would keep all the states together.
“If no compromise should take place, what will be the consequence?” Gerry asked. “A secession,” he foresaw, “would take place; for some gentlemen seem decided on it.” In that case, the American republic would fall apart and become easy prey to the empires all around them.
Support for Gerry
George Mason chimed in weightily. He argued that however liable the report might be to objections, it was preferable to an appeal to the world by the different sides.
He further said that it could not be more inconvenient to any gentleman to remain absent from his private affairs, than it was for him: but that he would bury his bones in this city rather than expose his country to the consequences of dissolution of the Convention without any thing being done.
If there was any one moment in the breadth of the Constitutional Convention’s proceedings when it felt that something tectonic was shifting under the feet of the delegates, when a point of no return had been met and passed, it was surely here with George Mason’s declaration.
The Impact of George Mason’s Declaration
George Mason was a Virginian; he had been part of the first meetings which led to this convention; and he was the intimate friend of Washington, who maintained his impartial silence from the president’s chair.
Whatever disappointment compromise spelled for Madison, from this moment on, there was no more serious debate on whether there should be one or two houses, or whether they should be elected by the general population or by the states.
The question would now become merely a matter of arranging the details of the Grand Committee’s report. Although the final vote would not be taken on the Grand Committee’s recommendations until July 16, the first great battle of the Convention was really over.
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Objections by Gouverneur Morris
Franklin’s idea had fixed on having one representative in the lower house for every 40,000 inhabitants. But Gouverneur Morris was ready with an objection on July 6.
If 40,000 was the baseline for allocating a representative, then Morris’s Pennsylvania would probably get 8—although determining this was, as he admitted, little more than a guess.
Virginia’s westernmost province of Kentucky was already making motions about setting itself up as a separate state. So was the province of Maine, which was technically still a part of Massachusetts. Their populations were bound to be far below 40,000, but according to the compromise, they would still be entitled to one representative at least in the House of Representatives.
This, by Gouverneur Morris’s logic, cheated Pennsylvania and the other existing states, since 40,000 of their inhabitants got them only one representative, while 3,000-4,000 in Maine or Kentucky would also get them one representative. Hence, 3,000-4,000 Kentuckians would get more of a say in Congress than any 3,000-4,000 Pennsylvanians or Virginians.
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Representation of States in the Senate
Other objections crowded in, as well. How, exactly, should the states be represented in the Senate?
Back in June, Roger Sherman of Connecticut had insisted that in the second branch or Senate, each state should have one vote and no more. It was neither here nor there to Sherman whether the states were represented in the Senate by multiple senators—when it came to a vote, only one vote should be cast for each state.
If they vote by States in the 2nd branch, and each State has an equal vote—Sherman argued—there must always be a majority of States as well as a majority of the people on the side of public measures, and the Government will have decision and efficacy.
But neither Sherman nor Luther Martin, who spoke bluntly in favor of voting by states in the Senate and against voting per capita, with each senator voting as they saw fit, as “departing from the idea of the States being represented in the 2nd branch,” could carry the day, and eventually the Convention settled on allowing each state two senators, each of whom would be permitted to vote independently.
What proved infinitely more contentious was the injection of the idea of reckoning property into the formula for determining representation in the lower house, because any discussion of property led ineluctably to a subject almost everyone in the Convention would sooner have ignored: slavery.
Common Questions about Report of the Grand Committee: Objections and Settlements
James Wilson accused the Grand Committee of having exceeded their powers.
George Mason was a Virginian; he had been part of the first meetings which led to this Convention; and he was the intimate friend of Washington, who maintained his impartial silence from the president’s chair.
Regarding representation of states in the Senate, the Convention settled on allowing each state two senators, each of whom would be permitted to vote independently.