By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading Edward J. Larson’s The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789. As I read this intriguing examination of our first President’s actions after he resigned his military commission and before he took the oath as our nation’s first President, I am reminded that the government of this great nation was founded on one defining principle and it is not freedom, independence, federalism or even checks and balances. That one defining principle, without which there would have been no Constitution and no United States of America, is compromise.
As we look back on a 225-year journey from 13 disaggregated states to a global power of more than 330 million, it is easy to assume that this government sprang fully developed from the united minds of intellectual giants. But a reading of this book reminds me that this idea is far from the truth. The US Constitution and the government that it established were the result of fights, debates, arguments, politics and, above all else, compromise.
One state, Rhode Island, refused to even send delegates to the convention. New Hampshire’s three delegates arrived two months after the four-month convention had started, by which time two of New York’s three delegates had left in disgust. At various points, delegates from every state threatened to walk out unless they got their way.
And yet, apart from the New York delegates, they did not walk out. According to the copious notes of James Madison, at least three issues threatened, at various points, to derail the process: the nature and powers of the executive, the nature of representation (would states count or people?) and the “value” of slaves relative to population. Large states could have held out for representation based solely on population and small states for state equality, but each gave a little. Southern states could have left the convention in order to have slaves count fully for representation purposes, or Northern states could have held out for them to count as nothing, but they met in the middle. Convention attendees who feared the new executive was too strong (or too weak) could have stormed out, but they stuck it out and created an independent executive who was checked by the legislative and judicial branches.
This is not to suggest that the Founders were perfect. While managing to forge a compromise on how to count slaves in determining representation in the national congress, they chose to avoid the core issue of slavery. Seventy years later, this failure would pit brother against brother and threaten to split the still young nation. More than 600,000 lives would be lost and the full impact of the American Civil War continues to this day.
The compromises did not stop once the Constitutional Convention adjourned and the Constitution passed. While it was ratified easily in some of the smaller states, it passed by very slim margins and after much debate in New York, Massachusetts and Virginia, all three critical to the success of the fledgling government it would create. Pennsylvania passed it only on the condition that a Bill of Rights would be added later.
So, this great document that defined principles and established a government that has been the envy of the free world for more than two centuries was the result of principled men willing to compromise for the greater good of the nation, sometimes at the expense of their own states and even their own fortunes.
And yet, many of the very same people who hold the US Constitution up as a near Biblical document seem to denigrate the very kinds of compromise that made it possible. Candidates run for office promising “never to compromise their principles,” deriding anyone who holds a different opinion as ignorant or unpatriotic. And voters, fed by a steady diet of “news” from like-minded media outlets and talking heads, vote for these candidates.
What if those 55 men who participated in the Constitutional Convention had approached their jobs with such single-mindedness and commitments to not compromise at any cost? There would have been no US Constitution, no new government, no shining beacon of democracy. Imagine what we and the world would have lost!
Perhaps we as voters and elected officials should think of the compromises that made this great nation the next time we refuse even to listen to what the other side has to say or we send out a tweet calling others evil or un-American simply because they have a perspective or position that differs from ours. We, as individuals and a nation, would be better off.