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A compromise between Southern and Northern states in which three-fifths of the enumerated population of slaves would be counted for representation purposes regarding both the distribution of taxes and the apportionment of the members of the United States House of Representatives.
An agreement that large and small states reached during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that in part defined the legislative structure and representation that each state would have under the United States Constitution. It retained the bicameral legislature as proposed by James Madison, along with proportional representation in the lower house, but required the upper house to be weighted equally between the states.
The phrase "to form a more perfect Union" refers to the shift from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution in the late 1780s. In this transition, the "Union" was made "more perfect" by the creation of a strong federal government. During the Revolution, Americans had deliberately avoided creating a strong national government. However, as rebellions and economic challenges arose, people began clamoring for something more. In 1787, the new nation produced greater unity among the states under the Constitution. However, this more perfect Union was not without wrinkles. While some compromises made at the convention would strengthen the new republic, other compromises would eventually tear the country apart.
Articles of Confederation
Before the Constitution was drafted, the nearly 4 million inhabitants of the 13 newly-independent states were governed under the Articles of Confederation, created by the Second Continental Congress. It soon became evident that the chronically underfunded Confederation government, as originally organized, was inadequate to manage the various conflicts that arose among the states. As the Articles could only be amended by unanimous vote of the states, any state had effective veto power over any proposed change. In addition, the Articles gave the weak federal government no taxing power: it was wholly dependent on the states for its money, and had no power to force delinquent states to pay.
The Constitutional Convention was organized between May and September of 1787. Although original designed to amend the existing Articles, the intention from the outset of many of its proponents, chief among them James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, was to create a new government.
Madison and the Convention
Madison, one of the first delegates to arrive, sketched out his initial draft, which reflected Madison's views as a strong nationalist. This became known as the Virginia Plan. When the rest of the Virginia and Pennsylvania delegation arrived they agreed on Madison's plan, and formed what came to be the predominant coalition. By the time the Convention started, the only blueprints that had been assembled were Madison's Virginia Plan, and Charles Pinckney's plan. As Pinckney didn't have a coalition behind his plan, Madison's plan was the starting point for deliberations.
The Convention agreed on several principles. Most importantly, they agreed that the Convention should produce a new constitution and that the new government would have all the powers of the Confederation Congress, plus additional powers over the states. Delegates also eventually supported the creation of "checks and balances" among three branches of government and a division of power between the national and state government. Under this "federal" structure the U.S. government would be the supreme law of the land. Agreeing on these principles, the Convention voted on the Virginia plan and began modifications.
Debate and Compromise
The first area of major dispute was how representation would be apportioned in the bicameral legislature. Small states felt that all states were equal in stature and that if Congressional representation were based upon population, they would be outvoted on everything. Large states felt that populations should determine how many representatives a state should have, because they were afraid that they would be outvoted by the small states.
Delegates eventually adopted the Connecticut Compromise (or the Great Compromise) which blended the Virginia (large-state) and New Jersey (small-state) proposals. The U.S. government would have two houses in Congress: the Senate, in which each state has two Senators, and the House of Representatives, in which each state has a number of Representatives based on population.
After adopting the Great Compromise, delegates moved on to tackle the most controversial issue threatening the Union: slavery. Twenty-five of the Convention's 55 delegates owned slaves, including all of the delegates from Virginia and South Carolina. Whether slavery was to be regulated under the new Constitution was a matter of such intense conflict between the North and South that several Southern states refused to join the Union if slavery were not to be allowed.
Delegates settled on a compromise: Congress would have the power to ban the international slave trade, but not for another 20 years (that is, not until after 1808). In exchange for this concession, the federal government's power to regulate foreign commerce would be strengthened by provisions that allowed for taxation of slave trades in the international market and that reduced the requirement for passage of navigation acts from two-thirds majorities of both houses of Congress to simple majorities.
Another contentious slavery-related question was whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation of the states in the Congress, or would instead be considered property and as such not be considered for purposes of representation. Delegates from states with a large population of slaves argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation, but as property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states on the basis of population. Delegates from states where slavery had become rare argued that slaves should be included in taxation, but not in determining representation.
Finally, delegates agreed on the Three-Fifths Compromise, which was able to temporarily keep the young nation together. However, it proved to be a little more than a bandage that unraveled by the 1850s, as the U.S. accepted the fact that freedom and slavery could not exist together unchallenged in their desired "more perfect Union. "
Convention delegates were successful in creating a powerful document and a United States. The Constitution was adopted in September of 1787 and went into effect in May of 1789. It is a living and breathing document that can be amended with three-fourths of the state legislatures approval. The first 10 amendments (additions to the Constitution), called the Bill of Rights, were added in 1791. In 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. So far, there have been 27 amendments to the US Constitution.