The Great Compromise of 1787: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 What is the Great…
  • 0:36 A Struggling Union
  • 1:56 Leaders Converge
  • 3:39 Negotiating an Agreement
  • 4:52 A New Form of Government
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The originators of the Great Compromise faced demanding challenges in creating a lasting governmental structure. Learn how they overcame their differences and shaped what became the basic government of the United States.

What Is the Great Compromise of 1787?

The 1780s proved to be volatile years in United States history. The Articles of Confederation, the original United States governing document ratified in 1781, had provided an inadequate governmental structure. The economy, which plummeted following the Anglo-American Revolution, was struggling to rebound. Additionally, citizens were divided due to contentious politics. In 1787, delegates came together at the Constitutional Convention to address national reform. The resolution of this debate became known as the Great Compromise of 1787 and resulted in the creation of the United States Constitution.

A Struggling Union

The Articles of Confederation desperately lacked the necessary power to maintain a strong Union. The Articles could not regulate trade, draft soldiers, or levy taxes. It could not solve the polarizing issue of slavery in the Northwest Territory, and it failed to pay off the nation's accumulated war debt.

Debt became an enormous issue within the United States. Since transactions were limited with the British following the war, many individuals struggled to generate enough money to pay for consumer goods as well as taxes. Farmers, for example, sold the majority of their livestock, crops, and land, and hoped that their respective state legislatures would render assistance. Unfortunately, the state was not able to provide any type of social welfare. Many individuals were forced into foreclosures.

This did not set well with one man: Daniel Shays. Shays, a farmer and former captain in the Continental Army, organized a mixed group of protesters to assault a federal arsenal located in Springfield, Massachusetts. Eventually, the operation, known historically as Shays' Rebellion, was suppressed by a volunteer militia. However, the event persuaded many leaders within the Union that it was time to adopt a stronger system of government.

Leaders Converge

In 1785, Alexander Hamilton, a prominent New York attorney, called upon the states to convene in order to address the limitations of the Articles of Confederation. Virginian James Madison responded with support. He asked the states to send delegates to a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to simply discuss the commercial implications of the Articles. Much to the disappointment of Hamilton and Madison, only delegates from five states attended. Yet, the small conference approved a plan in which the states would send representatives to a convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Beginning in May, 55 delegates from 12 states (Rhode Island was absent) congregated in Philadelphia to address the need for reform. The Constitutional Convention began when Madison and Edmund Randolf, governor of Virginia, opened with a proposed system of national government titled the Virginia Plan. This plan called for a legislative, executive, and judicial branch. These three branches would serve under a bicameral (two-house) legislature. The lower house would be elected by the population, while representatives in the upper house would be elected by members of the lower house.

Small states quickly rejected the Virginia Plan on the basis that, at any time, there may not be any representatives from small states in the upper house. Therefore, William Paterson of New Jersey countered with the New Jersey Plan. This concept called for a similar government but with a unicameral (one-house) legislature, popular elections, and equal representation for each state. Delegates from larger states quickly rejected the New Jersey Plan.

Negotiating an Agreement

Even though members of the convention wholeheartedly rejected each other's proposed plans, a period of reflection led to a negotiation on the future of the United States government. Proponents of the Virginia Plan realized certain allowances had to be made for the smaller states. Conversely, the smaller states came to the same realization about allowances for the larger states.

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