Portrait of George Washington

George Washington presided over the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This circa 1800 portrait of Washington, after Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait, is exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Compromise Brought Constitutional Convention
to a Successful Conclusion on September 17, 1787

While compromise seems elusive on many of today’s pressing public issues, it was a crucial element at the 1787 convention that framed our federal constitutional system of government.

On May 25, 1787, 30 men assembled at the state house in Philadelphia to begin the federal convention.  The gathering included governors, court justices and former Continental congressmen.  Eventually, 12 states (Rhode Island did not participate) sent a total of 55 men to attend at least some sessions of the convention.  One of their first actions was to select George Washington to preside over the meetings.  The Virginia delegation effectively took the lead by introducing a set of proposals, commonly called the Virginia plan, for a national legislature of two houses, or branches, (both apportioned by population) and a national executive and judiciary.

Early in the debates, the delegates agreed to create an entirely new system of government based on the principle of separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers rather than just amending the existing Articles of Confederation.  The problem of representation posed the greatest threat to their work.  In June, William Patterson introduced the New Jersey plan, favored by the smaller states, which retained the one-state, one-vote system of the Articles of Confederation.  After a brilliant speech by James Madison, this plan was rejected, but a heated and bitter debate between the large and small state delegations dragged on into July. 

Finally Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed the so-called “Great Compromise” providing for a lower House of Representatives apportioned by population and upper branch, or Senate, which gave each state equal representation.  The adoption of this solution, which protected the interests of both large and small states, was a critical turning point.  Throughout the rest of the convention, delegates worked out solutions to a variety of thorny issues and controversies. 

By September 17 the convention had completed its work, and the new Constitution was ready to be sent out to the states for ratification.  Without the willingness of the delegates to compromise on several critical issues and the steadying influence of George Washington, our fledgling new nation might never have taken flight.

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