Reconsidering the Great Compromise at the Federal Convention of 1787: Deliberation and Agenda Effects on the Senate and Slavery


  • Jeremy C. Pope is Assistant Professor of Political Science and a Research Fellow, Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, Brigham Young University, 745 Spencer W. Kimball Tower, Provo, UT 84602 ( Shawn Treier is Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Minnesota, 1414 Social Science Building, 267 19th Ave. S, Minneapolis, MN 55455 (

This project benefitted from many who were willing to comment on the paper at various stages, including a 2007 APSA panel organized by Keith Dougherty. We would like to single out Calvin Jillson and Kevin Quinn, who both commented on the project at crucial stages; John Aldrich and John Geer; and finally, the members of the Brigham Young University Political Science Seminar, especially Scott Cooper, Jay Goodliffe, Chris Karpowitz, and most especially Matt Holland, who read multiple drafts. We also appreciate funding from the BYU Political Science Department's Constitution Fund established to provide for study of that vital subject, as well as funding from a McMillan Travel Grant and Single Semester Leave Award at the University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts. And finally, we appreciate the comments of three anonymous reviewers. Replication materials for this article may be found in the IQSS Dataverse,, or by contacting the authors.


Conventional accounts of the Federal Convention of 1787 point to the many different compromises made at the convention, specifically the Great Compromise on representation and the Three-Fifths Compromise on slavery. Often these compromises are treated as separate events, the result of deliberation leading to moderation of delegate positions (presumably among the key states of Massachusetts and North Carolina). However, by applying the techniques of roll-call analysis, we find this traditional account is at best incomplete and probably misleading. While the Massachusetts delegation's behavior seems consistent with a moderation hypothesis, we find evidence that the other crucial vote for the Great Compromise—from North Carolina—is inconsistent with moderation, but can be linked through the agenda to the Three-Fifths Compromise over slavery, taxation, and representation. We conclude by arguing that this reconsideration of some of the convention's key votes should cause political scientists and historians to reevaluate how they see the compromises at the convention.