Today in 1787: Founding Fathers agree to “Great Compromise”

July 16, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryDuring the hot summer months of 1787, 55 representatives of the various states met in Philadelphia to hammer out a replacement for the toothless Articles of Confederation. And the temperature in the already-sweltering room surely increased a few degrees when the topic of debate turned to legislative representation.

For obvious reasons, the larger states wanted proportional representation in both houses of Congress – a potential dealbreaker for the small states, which feared being trampled by their larger neighbors. This big-versus-little split was so divisive that it threatened to derail the entire Constitutional Convention.

After weeks of off-and-on debate over several competing proposals, the large states finally relented, agreeing to a Senate composed of two delegates per state, regardless of population.

This “Great Compromise” is also known as the Connecticut Compromise or Sherman’s Compromise, after Roger Sherman, the Connecticut delegate who proposed it.

Roger ShermanThough not as famous as the other Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman played a central role at the convention. In fact, according to the scrupulous notes taken by James Madison, Sherman spoke more often than any other delegate except Madison himself.

A bar-admitted attorney with a gift for oratory, Sherman was held in high esteem by the other Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson once said, “That is Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.” (Judging from his many portraits, it’s possible that he never smiled in his life, either.)

More interesting facts about Roger Sherman:

  • He was a member of the “Committee of Five” that drafted the Declaration of Independence.
  • He was opposed to paper money (a hot political topic of the time) and tried to insert a clause into the Constitution to make “gold and silver coin” the only legal tender in the United States.
  • He was married twice and had a total of 15 children.
  • He was distantly related to General William Tecumseh Sherman and more closely related to Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin.
  • Not one, but two towns are named in his honor: Sherman, Connecticut, and Sherman, New York.