Lesson 2: The Question of Representation at the 1787 Convention

When the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention convened in May of 1787 to recommend amendments to the Articles of Confederation, one of the first issues they addressed was the plan for representation in Congress. This question was especially contentious, and kept the delegates embroiled in debate and disagreement for over six weeks. One group of delegates believed that they were not authorized to change the "federal" representational scheme under the Articles of Confederation, according to which the states were equally represented in a unicameral Congress by delegates appointed by the state legislatures. Another group of delegates believed that the current scheme of representation under the Articles of Confederation was flawed and had to be replaced with a better one—a "national" one. The question was finally resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which resulted in a system of representation that would be "partly national, partly federal," involving a combination of the two kinds of representation.

This lesson will focus on the various plans for representation debated during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By examining the views of delegates as recorded in James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, students will understand the arguments of those who supported either the Virginia Plan or New Jersey Plan. Students will also see why the Connecticut Compromise was crucial for the Convention to fulfill its task of remedying the political flaws of the Articles of Confederation.

Guiding Questions

Why was the question of representation such an important issue to the delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and what led them to eventually compromise on the question?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to: Identify key delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and their views concerning the following aspects of representation: whether Congress should be unicameral or bicameral; whether states should send an equal or proportional number of representatives to Congress; and whether the people or the state legislatures should elect representatives.

Explain and discuss the schemes of representation in the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Hamilton Plan.

Articulate how the question of representation fundamentally affected whether the changes proposed by the Convention would lead to a "national" or a "federal" system.

Explain the significance of the Connecticut Compromise in resolving the question of representation.

Assess whether it was really necessary to fundamentally change the scheme of representation as it existed under the Articles of Confederation.