Roger Sherman’s Proposal of Suffrage in a Bicameral Legislature

From the Lecture Series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Despite the deadlock between the supporters of the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan, though, means for resolving the standoff already lay at hand. One of these was a seemingly innocuous proposal by Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, about the type of suffrage in a bicameral national legislature. This proposal would provide a way forward out of the apparently unsolvable problem faced by the Convention.

The signing of the US constitution.
After the American Revolution, the biggest challenge for the American leaders was to fix the structure of government. (Image: Henry Hintermeister/Public domain)

Sherman’s Early Proposal

Roger Sherman had made a proposal early during the Convention on June 11, 1787. He suggested, “That the proportion of suffrage in the first branch”—of a bicameral National Legislature—“should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each state should have one vote and no more.”

Roger Sherman was one of the Convention’s curiosities, not the least because Sherman would become one of only two members of the Convention who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution; the other was Robert Morris. He began adult life in New Milford, Connecticut as a shopkeeper and never attended college.

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Sherman: The Puritan

But he had a strong store of native intelligence, and taught himself enough law by reading to pass the bar examination in 1754, moving up from there to become a judge, a member of the Connecticut legislature, mayor of New Haven, and even treasurer of Yale. John Adams described him as, “an old Puritan, as honest as an angel and as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas.”

An old Puritan, indeed—Sherman even wrote on the theology of infant baptism, on church membership, and on receiving communion. And in New Haven, his minister was no one less than Jonathan Edwards the Younger, son of the great theologian of the Great Awakening. Sherman’s portrait, painted by the most famous New England portrait painter of the post-revolutionary years, Ralph Earl, shows a man of awkward build, rough homespun clothing, a jaw fixed like granite, but a pair of intense and brilliantly piercing eyes.

Learn more about James Madison’s conference.

Sherman’s Objections to the Virginia Plan

Sherman arrived at the Convention on May 30, and at first he was adamant that the Virginia Plan would mean the creation of a national monstrosity in which a few large states will rule the rest. “The objects of the Union,” Sherman said in his first speech on June 6, “were few. One: defense against foreign danger. Two: against internal disputes and a resort to force. Three: treaties with foreign nations. Four: regulating foreign commerce, and drawing revenue from it.”

But he was not fond of speculation and he did not regard smallness as a virtue. States, he recognized, may indeed be too small as Rhode Island, and thereby be too subject to faction. Sympathetic as he was in many ways to William Paterson, Sherman understood that “the national debt and the want of power somewhere to draw forth the National resources, are the great matters that press.”

A portrait of Roger Sherman.
Roger Sherman was not fond of speculation and he did not regard smallness as a virtue. (Image: Ralph Earl/Public domain)

Sherman’s Renewed Proposal

And on June 20, Sherman offered that if the difficulty on the subject of representation can not be otherwise got over, he would agree to have two branches, and a proportional representation in one of them; provided each state had an equal voice in the other.

This time, more of the delegates were listening. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina pleaded, “If we do not concede on both sides, our business must soon be at an end.”

But James Madison was unyielding. He was convinced that nothing less than a legislature with proportional representation by population would serve American interests. James Wilson likewise dug his ditch even deeper: “The rule of suffrage ought to be on every principle 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.”

Learn more about the Constitutional Convention.

The Split Convention

But not even Madison and Wilson could persuade the Convention that they were not on the brink of breaking up. When they forced a vote for allowing each state one vote in the second branch, the Convention split straight down the middle, five aye and five nay. The two Georgia delegates, Abraham Baldwin and William Houston, themselves split against each other. “We are now at full stop,” Roger Sherman warned, “and nobody he supposed meant that we should break up without doing something.”

The solution came in the form of a proposal by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. He had voted against the New Jersey Plan, but he conceded that some compromise seemed to be necessary. To that end, he suggested the creation of a Grand Committee, consisting of a member from each state, which should take the opportunity of the Fourth of July adjournment to devise and report some compromise.

The Grand Committee

So, in addition to Sherman’s compromise proposal, the Convention appointed a committee to consider compromise in general. Madison fought it to the last minute, vehemently protesting that he had rarely seen any other effect than delay from such committees in Congress.

But the vote to create the Grand Committee was lopsidedly in favor, nine to two. Still, nobody was celebrating as the Convention broke up for the adjournment. Even Washington was exhausted. Things “are now if possible in a worse train than ever,” he wrote, and there was little basis, “on which the hope of a good establishment can be formed. In a word, I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of our convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.”

Common Questions about Roger Sherman’s Suffrage Proposal

Q: What was Roger Sherman’s initial view of the Virginia Plan?

At first, Roger Sherman was adamant that the Virginia Plan would mean the creation of a national monstrosity in which a few large states will rule the rest.

Q: What was Roger Sherman’s proposal that could solve the deadlock in the Convention?

Roger Sherman proposed a bicameral legislature, in which one house would have proportional representation, while the other would have equal votes for all states.

Q: What did the Convention do to settle the deadlock?

In addition to Roger Sherman’s proposal, the Convention on the suggestion of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney had set up a Grand Committee, consisting of a member from each state, to devise and report some compromise.

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