By Thom Little, Ph.D.
For several months now, all of us at the State Legislative Foundation have been focused on our first educational program of 2020, Framing America’s Future, to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 30-May 3. Because my colleagues at SLLF (or anyone who knows me well) know better than to trust me with important details like lodging, meals, marketing or technology, I get to spend most of my time focusing on what we are going to talk about and who will lead those conversations.
As I hope is suggested by the title (and perhaps the location) of the program, we will be looking at the present and future of our representative democracy through an historical lens. On the first day, to be held at the National Constitution Center, we will hear from two nationally recognized historians about the challenges facing our founders in the 18th century and their successors in the 19th century as they lay the groundwork for the democracy we enjoy today. On day two at the Comcast Technology Center, we will discuss lessons we can learn from the success and failures of the founders that will empower today’s leaders to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
As I read and tried to recall my US history lessons of long ago (thank you Barry Aycock and Dennis Cloer), I was reminded of the political, ideological, regional and economic differences that could well have jettisoned the new government before it ever got off the ground. Some delegates wanted to amend the Articles, others wanted to scrap them and start over. Representatives from the South had plantation-based economies, while states in the North were more industrial. Large states wanted to be rewarded with political power commensurate with their size. Had our founders “dug in their heels” (or decided to just walk out) as it seems many elected officials are doing today, this great nation and its Constitution may have never passed.
As I recall, the various differences between the 55 delegates and the 13 colonies they represented manifested themselves in three critical issues: representation, executive power and whether slaves were to be counted in population records. Regarding representation, large states wanted the legislature to be based on population, while smaller states thought all states should have equal representation. Regarding the executive, some (Federalists) wanted a strong executive selected by the legislative branch, while others (AntiFederalists) were afraid to invest so much power in a single federal executive. Finally, while Southern states wanted slaves to be counted for the purpose of representation (ironic given they wanted them considered property for all other purposes), Northern states argued if they were to be considered property, they should not be counted in the census that determine representation. Any one of these differences could have doomed the new Constitution to failure and the fledgling country to the long list of failed nations.
However, realizing the importance of what they were doing, the delegates managed to arrive at a compromise acceptable to both sides so that the new government would gain the support of all thirteen colonies. The legislative power would be given equally to two chambers, one based on population (benefiting the large states) and one where each state got two members (benefiting the smaller states). Regarding the Executive, the President (not a monarch) would be chosen by a College of Electors (whose number would reflect the number of members they had in the two legislative chambers) who were to be chosen by the voters of each state, satisfying those who wanted the people to choose the executive, but providing some protection from mob rule with the independent Electors. Finally, slaves would be counted as two-thirds of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives, giving Southern and Northern states a partial victory. Of the 41 delegates who remained at the convention through the long hot Philadelphia summer, 39 delegates, representing all thirteen states, voted for the new Constitution on September 17, 1787. None of them got everything they wanted, but that all of them got something they could live with and we got a government that has thrived for more than two hundred years.
Were the founders perfect? Absolutely not. Did they make mistakes? Sure- most notably failing to address the issue of slavery which would cost the nation more than 600,000 lives about seventy years later. However, they were smart enough to make compromises and create a government that could earn the support of delegates (and later the voters) of all thirteen states and has been the envy of the free world for more than two centuries. Compromise works and this is a lesson that could serve elected officials and those who elect them in the 21st century as well as served our founders and their supporters in the 18th century.