by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research

Note: To learn more about the US Constitution, its past, present and future from people a lot smarter than me, join us at the United States Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA on September 2-4 for “The US Constitution: Framing America’s Future.” 

Happy birthday, America! I am writing this blog while watching The Capitol Fourth on July 4, 2021- 245 years to the day from when the American colonies officially declared their independence from Great Britain and the autocratic rule of King George III. When the 56 delegates affixed their signatures to “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” they initiated a revolutionary experiment in self-governance. It was the first formal document in the world to establish “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Governments were created by and to serve the interests of the governed. What a revolutionary idea!

But getting all thirteen colonies on board was not easy. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution that the thirteen colonies declare their independence. However, it was almost a month before the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted after intense debate, discussion and compromise. It was signed by 56 delegates representing all thirteen colonies, so the compromises worked. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, the delegates also created, after sixteen months of bitter debate, The Articles of Confederation to govern the new country. Again, compromise, especially around the balance of power between the state and federal (Congress) government, ruled the day. And even with compromises at the convention, it took four more years before all thirteen colonies ratified the new government. Creating a new government is not easy. Neither is governing.

While the compromises allowed for unanimous consent for forming the new government, they also created a government that proved to be ineffective. In a concession to those who rightfully feared a strong central government after life under the British Monarchy, the new government had gone too far in the other direction, creating a government that was too decentralized and gave too much power to the individual states. Further, it required any change to the government to be unanimous, again a nod to those who feared states would lose their autonomy.

In the summer of 1787, twelve states (except Rhode Island) sent delegates once again to Philadelphia, to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. However, the 55 delegates present (of the 74 selected to attend) quickly realized that a new government was necessary and set about designing it. Conflicts abounded: small states vs. large states; slave states vs. free states; nationalists vs. states’ rights advocates and those believing in the power of the people and those fearing the same. Debate was fierce. Delegates argued. Some even walked out. The Philadelphia summer was not the only thing that was hot! 

Finally, after three months of debates and compromises, the United States Constitution was adopted by unanimous consent. However, the unanimous consent claim is a bit deceiving because Rhode Island never sent any delegates, thirteen other delegates left before the document was adopted for personal reasons or because they disagreed with some of the compromises made and three stayed for the entire session, but refused to affix their names (so it really wasn’t unanimous). Like most compromises, not everyone was pleased and few, if any, participants got everything they wanted, but they gave a majority of the delegates something to hang their hat on. Key compromises revolved around large vs. small states (the House based on population and the Senate on individual states), slave vs. free (counting slaves at 3/5ths of a person for the purpose of the distribution of House members and Electoral College Votes); and those who wanted and those who feared election by the voters (the House elected by the people, the Senate by the states and the President by the Electoral College). The fact that “all men” included just white male landholders was a compromise more to the times than to a particular group.

Like all compromises, the results were not perfect. However, they were enough to get a significant majority of the delegates on board. More significantly, the compromises established a framework for governing and a method (the amendment process) to gradually, sometimes painfully, move toward a “more perfect union.”  Over the long arc of history, “all men” has come much closer to meaning “all peoples” and changes that have allowed for more direct elections of US Senators and the US President have moved the nation closer to really putting power in the hands of the governed. The nation is still far from perfect, but continued compromises and adaptations have moved us a long way. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we ought to be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”

Without thoughtful compromises, we would not be a nation. Without further thoughtful compromises, we would not be the nation we are today. As we move forward into the heart of the 21st century, I urge all of us, elected officials and voters alike, to consider the value of compromise, to remember, in the words of President Ronald Reagan, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally – not a 20 percent traitor.”