To get you excited for the 4th of July holiday we asked Donald Ritchie to blog for us. Ritchie is the author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion. His post is sure to make you feel patriotic!
Presidents and legislators often catch flack for taking holidays and not attending to the people’s business, but sometimes a timely break can help move things along. If not for a 4th of July recess, for instance, the U.S. Constitution and the federal government as we know it might never have existed. Under the Articles of Confederation, the first national government had consisted of a single legislative body, where all the states had an equal vote, without an executive or judiciary. This arrangement proved weak and ineffective. In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia to craft a stronger central government, with enhanced powers divided between three branches, and with a legislature divided into two bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Representation became a sticking point. Delegates from larger states thought it only fair that their states have a proportionate vote in Congress, while those from the smaller states refused to endorse any scheme that cost them equality. The debates went round and round. “Equalize the States–No Harm–no Hurt,” read the notes of New Jersey’s William Paterson. “Objection–There must be a national Government to operate individually upon the People in the first Instance, and not upon the States–and therefore a Representation from the People at Large and not from the States.” Seemingly at an impasse, and suffering from the summer’s heat and mosquitoes, the delegates took time off to enjoy Philadelphia’s 4th of July celebrations, marking the eleventh anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but appointed a committee to try to work something out over the break.
During the parades and fireworks, the smaller group produced an agreement known as the Great Compromise. They did what politicians naturally do: they split the difference, providing representation by population in the House and equality of states in the Senate. On July 5, the committee reported back to the convention, which adopted the plan on July 16. Other hurdles remained, including how to count enslaved people for congressional representation, but without the Great Compromise further deliberation would have been moot. Recently, the U.S. Senate installed a mural in the Capitol depicting two key members of the committee, Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth and Roger Sherman, as they labored over the compromise, commemorating a July 4th well spent.