Key Debates From the Constitutional Convention

Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk

Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school

The following lesson covers four key debates the Founding Fathers grappled with while writing the U.S. Constitution. A short quiz will follow the lesson to check your understanding.

Key Debates from the Constitutional Convention

Learning from our mistakes is one of life's hardest lessons. For the founding fathers, they were terrified at the prospect of creating a nation that would turn into the one they just fought against. Their first attempt at forming a new nation came when the Articles of Confederation were passed. However, the Articles turned out to be weak and very inefficient for running the country.

Eventually, the colonies realized that the new government they formed was also a mistake. They understood that a government that consisted of a single house Congress, where each state only had one vote, a government with no executive or judicial branches, and one in which individual states had more power than the federal government would not work. Thus, Congress went back to the drawing board and called for a new Constitutional Convention.

There were four major areas of interest that the Constitutional Convention wanted to get right this time around but there was considerable debate on the best way to do it. These four areas included:

  • How representation in Congress should be calculated
  • How the issue of slavery should be addressed
  • Whether or not there should be a central executive of the federal government
  • Whether or not power should still be reserved specifically for the states and U.S. citizens

Representation in Congress

The first issue that called for compromise during the Constitutional Convention was the issue of representation in Congress. There was debate on whether each state should still only have one vote (much like it was under the Articles) or should representation be determined proportionally on things like population. Both suggestions had their own merits.

If each state in Congress were to get the same amount of votes, that would ensure that smaller states could get their voices heard. However, basing the number of votes on something like population would also make sense for large states because their representatives understood that any important decisions would affect a larger portion of the nation. At first, it seemed neither side would budge until two states joined forces to create a compromise.

One of the first plans came from New Jersey statesman, William Paterson whose plan would be called, simply enough, the New Jersey Plan. Now, New Jersey isn't the smallest state, but it certainly isn't the biggest either. In general, the plan was meant to help smaller states gain representation. The plan called for all states regardless of population size to get an equal number of representatives in the new government.

Sounds great in theory right? Let's make everyone equal. However, larger states, like Virginia, weren't having it. The felt that each state's representation should be based on population. This would, of course, mean that Virginia would get far more representation than New Jersey. This alternative plan came to be known as the Virginia Plan.

Connecticut Plan
Connecticut Plan

To solve this debate, statesman Roger Sherman of Connecticut called for a compromise in which both plans would be combined. To do this, he proposed having a Congress that was bi-cameral, two houses, rather than one. One house would receive representatives from states based on population and the other house would get equal representation regardless of size. This plan became known as the Connecticut Plan or Great Compromise.

Issues of Slavery

Of course, there were many other things that needed to be discussed at the convention and one of the more awkward issues involved slavery.

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