Examining the Constitution: Compromise in Article I

Third in a series

Just as doctors, lawyers and other certified professionals periodically need to update their professional knowledge, it might be appropriate for voters to reacquaint themselves with our democratic republic.

What we learned in school and bolstered by personal life experiences better prepares us to exercise a key duty we have as citizens - to vote.

In the first two offerings in this series, a general overview of the document accompanied a brief set of reasons why the Framers decided to replace the Articles of Confederation. I also introduced the key delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

The complexity of this short and important document we call The Constitution of the United States is best reviewed by digesting its seven articles one at a time. We begin with consideration of Article I which is dedicated to the Legislative Branch.

Article I of our Constitution is the longest and most detailed for good reasons. One of the main weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation was the issue of states creating insufficient law to serve all the people.

Many of the supposed "laws of the land" - having been produced by 13 separate bodies of lawmakers - contradicted each other, didn't take into consideration other states' needs, and were certainly inconsistent as to how they would be enforced.

But how would the smaller states be treated in the lawmaking process without diminishing their importance? And what constituted the total population of a state that wanted its fair share of representation? Were slaves to be considered?

It was the dominant issue of the Constitutional Convention. The solutions can best be explained using two major agreements hotly debated behind closed doors - the Great Compromise and the 3/5ths Compromise.

Briefly, the Great Compromise involved three decisions. First, the House of Representatives would be elected by the people, and the number of representatives from each state would depend on population - thus, the need for a census every 10 years. Second, each state would send two representatives to a Senate.

Originally, senators were not elected by the citizens, but appointed by the individual state legislatures. In 1913, the 17th Amendment transferred the selection process to the voters.

Third, all bills involving taxation and government spending would be developed in the House of Representatives. It would have the power of the purse. Later the two chambers agreed that lawmakers in the senate could amend the tax bills and develop some bills of their own.

In summary, the Great Compromise assured that smaller states received equal representation in the Senate. The larger states kept control of the House, which exercised its important powers over taxation and government spending.

But what about states that had slavery? In 1787, almost 20% of our 3,566,378 residents were African Americans. Most were slaves. The government was tasked to protect property, and districts with more property than others were to receive more representation.

Should slaves be counted when apportioning representatives? In the South, slaves were considered "property," so "yes" became the answer.

But in the eyes of many white people, slaves were not equal to free men. It was determined that each slave would be counted as 3/5ths of a person to accommodate a census designed to apportion House members.

As an aside, it was not until 1924 that all Native Americans became citizens and were given the right to vote. They had been treated as aliens until then. Also, note that our original Constitution stated that members of the House would be the only directly elected federal government officials.

With these two issues settled, the Convention moved forward. Now it was time to enumerate the exact powers of the Congress.

• Bruce Simmons of Aurora is a former teacher with more than 25 years experience teaching social studies and humanities. This is one in a series of essays describing the history and meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The next installment will discuss how powers of the Congress were established.

Bruce Simmons
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