Course Hero Logo

From the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution

Debates at the Constitutional Convention

Debate and Compromises over Representation and Slavery

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 faced challenges regarding representation in the legislature, the issue of slavery, and the selection and powers of the chief executive (president) that they resolved through compromise.

In the summer of 1787, delegates from all the states except Rhode Island gathered in Philadelphia with the express aim of amending the Articles of Confederation. They quickly agreed to write a new framework of government and thus formed the Constitutional Convention, which drew up a new U.S. Constitution. Before they could agree on the final provisions of that document, however, the delegates had to forge compromises to settle disagreements over several issues.

One of the first clashes came over the structure of the legislature, how many delegates the states should have, and the voting power of those representatives. Two different plans were put forth. The Virginia Plan was a plan for government favoring large states by establishing a bicameral legislature in which representation in both houses was based on population. Bicameral means having a legislature with two chambers. The New Jersey Plan was a plan for government favoring small states by keeping the unicameral legislature formed under the Articles of Confederation and giving each state equal representation. Unicameral means having a legislature with one chamber. The disagreement threatened progress at the convention.
The Virginia Plan offered more of a departure from the Confederation Congress than did the New Jersey Plan.
The issue of representation was resolved by the Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise because it was put forth by two delegates from Connecticut. This plan proposed a legislature made up of a Senate, in which each state had equal representation, and a House of Representatives, in which representation was proportional in relation to the population of each state. The compromise passed narrowly—by only one vote.

Another contentious issue at the Constitutional Convention was whether or not enslaved people should be counted in a state's population for the purposes of representation and taxation. Many of the less populous states allowed slavery. Counting enslaved people would give them greater representation than they would otherwise have. Many of the more populous states did not allow slavery. A compromise, called the Three-Fifths Compromise, was reached. Adopting a formula used under the articles to calculate the financial responsibility of states, it provided that enslaved individuals would be reckoned as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of both representation and taxation.

The slavery issue prompted another debate—the question of the international slave trade. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, 10 states had banned the importation of slaves—only the two Carolinas and Georgia still allowed it. Delegates from those states were adamant about retaining the slave trade, however. In the end, the northern delegates who opposed slavery—only a minority of the Convention—accepted provisions that entrenched slavery for the sake of ensuring the support of southern delegates. The delegates also agreed to prohibit Congress from banning the slave trade before 1808 and also agreed that those who escaped from being enslaved by fleeing to a free state could be seized and returned to slavery.

Executive Branch and Electoral College Compromise

The delegates determined that the executive branch would be headed by a single president with limited power to veto legislation who would be selected not by popular vote but by a group of electors.

While the delegates agreed that the new constitution should institute an executive branch, they debated how it should be structured. The first question was whether to invest executive power in the hands of one person or many. Some delegates believed that having more than one executive officer would provide a defense against excessive executive power. Ultimately, though, they agreed to a single president with a system of constraints in place to ensure that the powers of the presidency were not abused. A related question was how long the executive should be allowed to serve. Some delegates wanted to limit the president to just one term; Alexander Hamilton of New York favored having the president serve for life. In the end, the delegates set no limit on the number of terms a person could serve as president but set a four-year limit on each term. While the delegates agreed that the president should have the power to veto, or reject, legislation passed by Congress, they also argued over the extent of that power. Some thought the power should be absolute, as a full check against the abuse of legislative power. Others feared giving such complete power to the executive. Once again, they settled the matter by compromise, giving the president the veto power but also granting Congress the power to override a veto by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The method for choosing a president presented another challenge to the delegates. While some preferred that the president be selected by a vote in Congress, others felt the president should be chosen by popular vote. The compromise was the electoral college—the system by which the president and vice president of the United States are selected by electors from each state and the District of Columbia. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it has representatives and senators in Congress, and the District of Columbia has three. (The Constitution originally did not give electoral votes to the District of Columbia; they were added by an amendment ratified in 1961.) A candidate had to secure a majority of the electoral votes to win the presidential election—today, that means 270 out of 538 electoral votes.