The United States Constitution: The Legislative Branch

The United States Constitution Blog Series

The 2018-2019 Georgia History Festival theme, “The United States Constitution: Ensuring Liberty and Justice for All,” will highlight Georgia stories that illustrate topics related to drafting, amending, and interpreting the U.S. Constitution throughout our nation’s history.  The monthly blog posts will provide more in-depth examination of each of the seven articles by exploring how the living document has affected generations of Georgians and by highlighting new and existing resources available through the Georgia Historical Society.


The Legislative Branch

United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. Aerial. 2007. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

September’s theme investigates the importance of compromise in creating the bicameral legislature the United States uses today. During the Constitutional Convention, the delegates debated how representation in the two houses of the legislature would be decided. Specifically, how would state population impact state representation? Would the states have equal votes, regardless of population—as they had during the Confederation—or would voting be based upon population? In the end, the Compromise of 1787 granted the Senate a fixed number of representatives per state, while the number of representatives in the lower house would be based on population. This compromise led to another debate among the delegates: Should all individuals be counted toward a state’s population, or just those who were free?

Since representation in the House would be relative to a state’s population, the ratio of people to elected politicians needed to be accurate and consistent for each state to hold a correct share of power in the legislature. State population would also determine the number of presidential electors and direct taxation for each state. Southern states argued that enslaved persons should count in the total state population to create true representation, although slaves were considered property, not citizens, and therefore had none of the rights granted to citizens. To resolve this controversy, the convention incorporated the Three-Fifths Compromise. It became Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution.

Abraham Baldwin’s Draft of the United States Constitution. Georgia Historical Society.

The compromise required that three-fifths of the total slaves in each state be added to its number of free people. This guaranteed more seats to slave-holding states in the House of Representatives. Since the highest concentrations of enslaved workers were in the South, it gave southern states more representation—both in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. It also meant increased taxes in situations where a state’s population determined the tax bill. Although slaves were partially included in the total population count, Southern states were not given as many seats had each slave been counted as one free person.

Although this compromise allowed the convention to reach a decision, this controversial policy had lasting consequences. Slavery remained a central issue throughout decades of difficult legislative, judicial, and executive decisions. The nation increasingly questioned whether slavery should be abolished as the southern states simultaneously became even more dependent on enslaved labor. Ultimately, this debate led to the Civil War, resulting in the end of slavery, the nullification of the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the addition of the the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

To discover more about the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Constitution, explore the links below.

Inquiry Design Model: Was the Great Compromise of 1787 Fair?

Three Centuries of Georgia History: Eighteenth Century (Georgia in the Early Republic)

Three Centuries of Georgia History: Nineteenth Century (Growth and Change in Georgia)

Three Centuries of Georgia History: Nineteenth Century (Civil War and Reconstruction)

Featured Historical Figure: Abraham Baldwin

Library of Congress: The Constitution (Teacher’s Guide)

Library of Congress: Primary Documents in American History (United States Constitution)