The Road to Proportional Representation

When the framers of the United States Constitution assembled in Philadelphia in May 1787 to write a document securing the rights of the people and the restraints on government, the state delegates were immediately met with difficulties. One of the most often discussed problems was that of representation in central government (Ferrand 94)—something that the American people had lacked under British rule. More specifically, the fifty-five men that met at the Pennsylvania State House argued over what type of representation the people should have, especially when referring to the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives: whether proportional to each state’s population or equal regardless of a state’s size or wealth. Starting from the basis of Madison’s Virginia Plan, the framers worked to develop a situation that both the large and small states could accept—a plan in which neither type of state dominated the legislative branch. Once the delegates more or less decided on a bicameral government, a proposal unanimously accepted (Ferrand 91), the framers soon faced their problem: how could larger states be kept from dominating over smaller states without giving the smaller states more power than they deserved? The solution, brought about by debate followed by revision to what was fundamentally Madison’s Virginia Plan, took a relatively long time within the Constitutional Convention to resolve (Ferrand 94). Madison’s plan called for both houses of government to be based on proportional representation—the larger a state, the more representatives it had in each house of congress. However, when discussing representation in the lower house of Congress, Brearley and Paterson, delegates from New Jersey, saw the Virginia Plan and proportional representation as robbing the smaller states of an equal share in government, as the interests of larger states, since they had more representatives and therefore more votes, would always win over the interests of smaller ones. But although the Virginia plan did give the larger states an advantage, many argued that proportional representation more accurately represented the interests of the people (Boyer 133)—more people lived in and therefore shared the interests of the larger states, so in any popular vote, the interests of the larger states would prevail anyhow. It is not surprising, then, that in the first vote on the subject, New Jersey was only able to gain the support of Delaware and half of Maryland, and so the idea of proportional representation in the lower house passed (Ferrand 75). While the efforts of New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland were not enough to turn the vote in their favor, they were enough to encourage future attempts. The smaller states in the Union came back for another round of debate on June 19. Negotiations went calmly for the first few days, but soon feelings were running so high that the debate nearly caused a breakup of the Convention (Ferrand 93). A motion proposed on June 29 by Connecticut formalizing much of what had been voiced in the previous few days called for the members of the upper house of Congress to have an equal number of representatives from each state. The vote was a tie, perhaps only because some delegates, like Baldwin of Georgia, changed their votes only to keep the smaller states from leaving the Convention, or, worse yet, leaving the Union. “The fate of America was suspended by a hair,” later said Governor Morris (Ferrand 95-7). General Pinckney proposed a committee of one delegate from each state to create a compromise. The committee, when it returned on July 5, proposed that the first branch of Congress would be determined by proportional representation, while the second branch would show an equal number of representatives from each state. Again, debate erupted. Some delegates from small states, of which Paterson was the most vocal, thought the compromise conceded too much. Others, like Gorham, thought that Delaware should be annexed to Pennsylvania and part of New Jersey, the other part going to New York, thus generally equating the population of each state (Ferrand 99-100). Again, large states thought that small states were gaining more power than they deserved, while small states believed that in this sort of a system, the larger states would still be able to overpower the smaller ones. Nothing yet came of the committee’s response, but most delegates realized that in order to come to a conclusion, the proposal would need to be split up and each part would need to be voted on separately, or else debates could continue forever (Ferrand 100). The length of the debates may have been the only reason why both sides were willing to compromise. Had the delegates not come to a conclusion soon, the Convention would have surely either continued indefinitely or broken up all together. Delegates like Bedford feared that another country might move in against the relatively weak Americans through the support of the smaller states, while Williamson thought the committee’s proposal was “the most objectionable of any he had heard yet.” But still, the delegates were drawing closer to a compromise (Ferrand 100). Over the next week, while another committee worked out the details of what ratio would be used to determine representation in the lower house, the rest of the delegates seemed to calm down. Perhaps because of a change in weather or just because of the break in debate that the newly formed committee provided, the states came back on July 15 in what seemed to be a better frame of mind. When the final proposal was put to a vote, it passed, although only by one state; Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and North Carolina voted for it, while Georgia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia voted against it, with New York being excluded because its delegates had already left the convention and with Massachusetts divided (Ferrand 104). The issue was closed. The convention had decided: the upper house of Congress would have equal representation, while the lower house would be determined in proportion to the population of each state in a ration “not exceeding” one representative to forty thousand people, counting three-fifths of blacks, with Congress able to redefine the ratio as the population grew (Ferrand 101-103). While the framers had reached a compromise, not everyone was happy with it. Madison objected because he foresaw the huge number of representatives that would be needed in the lower house as the population grew, but most delegates never believed that the nation would stay united long enough for such a situation to become a problem (Ferrand 99). The plan still gave the smaller states more power than the larger states thought they deserved in the Senate, but the situation was more or less balanced out through proportional representation in the lower house and the system of checks and balances later put in place. The framers knew they had to compromise in order to continue writing the constitution and maintain the Union, so they decided on a system that has held in place for over two hundred years. What will become of it as the population continues to grow and the ratio of people to representatives in the House gets larger and larger is yet to be seen, but at the time, the modified Virginia Plan and Connecticut Proposal provided an acceptable solution to the problem of balancing individual state power and providing adequate representation for the people. Works Cited and Bibliography Ackerman, Bruce. We the People; Foundations. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991. Boyer Paul S., et al. Enfuring Vision. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995. Ferrand, Max. The Framing of the Constitution of the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1913. Pyle, Christopher H. and Pious, Richard M. The President, Congress, and the Constitution; Power and Legitamacy in American Politics. New York: The Free Press, 1984.