What were the most divisive issues the Constitutional Convention faced and what compromises did the delegates reach to solve them?

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The Constitutional Convention was ripe with disagreements. One of the first ones that needed to be surmounted was whether or not the country needed a new governing document at all. The fledgling country had struggled through years of problems governing under the relatively weak Articles of Confederation. There were many,...

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The Constitutional Convention was ripe with disagreements. One of the first ones that needed to be surmounted was whether or not the country needed a new governing document at all. The fledgling country had struggled through years of problems governing under the relatively weak Articles of Confederation. There were many, such as James Madison, who felt that the whole system needed to be erased and a new one created. Madison and his supporters had opponents, such as Patrick Henry, who felt that delegates at the Convention had no authority to change the government in such a sweeping fashion. The adversaries were eventually mollified through the introduction of a number of amendments provided to protect the civil rights of the people and the soverignty of the states.

A large debate also existed concerning representation. Naturally, the larger states, such as Pennsylvania and Virginia, wanted legislative representation to be based on population size. The smaller states, like Delaware and Rhode Island, felt that they could be too easily sidelined under such a system. They wanted each state to have equal representation regardless of population. The states eventually compromised, and created a bicameral legislature with a House of Representatives based on population and a Senate in which each state had the same amount of representatives. This became known as the Great Compromise.

What to do about counting slave populations also created a lot of strife at the Convention. At the time, Northern states had very small numbers of slaves and Southern states had significant slave populations. Even though enslaved people would not be able to vote, the Southern states still wanted their slaves to be counted for the purposes of appointing congressional delegates. The Northern states rejected this idea. Eventually, the Three-Fifths Compromise was agreed upon. Based on these terms, each enslaved person counted as sixty percent of a non-enslaved person for the purposes of determining representation and taxation.

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The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787. There was no precedent for the undertaking, so a number of divisive issues had to be dealt with.

The first important and divisive issue was whether to amend or replace the Articles of Confederation. The first government of the United States was based on the Articles of Confederation, but they proved to be inadequate for several reasons. The biggest problem with the Articles was the weakness of the central government. The individual states retained too much power, and the national government was virtually impotent. Shay's Rebellion, which was symptomatic of the country's financial problems, showed that the status quo could not be maintained. Therefore, the Founding Fathers decided to write a new document. Some feared that they had exceeded their authority in doing so.

Perhaps the biggest controversy was over the issue of representation. Under the Articles, all states had had one vote. This arrangement favored the smaller states. At the Philadelphia convention, the large states sought a national legislature based on states's populations. But the small states did not want to relinquish the power they had enjoyed under the Articles. After much contentious debate, the Connecticut Compromise gave the large states more representation in the House, and it allowed each state an equal voice in the Senate.

Another contentious issue was over voting. How would the new nation's representatives, senators, and presidents be selected? Only the representatives in the House would be elected by popular vote. In those days, that meant only white men who paid taxes could vote. Senators and presidents were to be elected by the state legislatures and the Electoral College, respectively.

Slavery could have become a divisive issue. But the Founding Fathers, rightly or wrongly, chose not to let slavery become a key issue in Philadelphia. They feared a debate over slavery would jeopardize the work of producing a new constitution.

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The Constitutional Convention certainly faced its share of controversies in its attempt to redesign the government of the United States. In fact, even the project of creating a this new, more centralized government for the United States was quite controversial at the time (this controversy can be observed in the Federalist Debates which surrounded the Constitution's ratification, where proponents and critics of the Constitution argued for and against the new founding document). However, there were several issues that arose over the course of the Convention itself which divided the members of the Convention against each other, and had to be navigated via careful compromise.

One of the most heated disagreements arose between the less populous states of the Union and the more populous ones over the question of how much representation each state should receive in the legislature. The more populated states put forward the Virginia Plan, which suggested that representation be proportionate to population (naturally, this idea would favor these larger states politically, as they would elect more delegates to Congress). In contrast, the New Jersey Plan, backed by the smaller states, envisioned a legislature in which each state received an equal vote. Neither side was willing to concede. The Great Compromise offered a solution: by dividing Congress into two houses, it would be possible to preserve an element of each plan. The House of Representatives would be organized along the lines of the Virginia Plan, and the Senate more along New Jersey Plan lines, with each state receiving the same two Senators. Thus, both sides in the debate could be appeased.

A second point of division was over the question of slavery. One of the critical questions that emerged during the Constitutional Convention was whether slave populations should be counted when determining each state's representation in Congress. Slave States argued for their inclusion (as slaves made up a significant portion of their population) while Free States opposed this measure vociferously. In the end, the members of the Convention adopted the 3/5 Compromise, which held that slaves would count at 3/5 the value of a free citizen. Another point of contention concerned the Slave Trade itself. This second question was tabled until 1808, at which point Congress could legislate its prohibition.

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