American Heritage Editors and Readers Urge Political Leaders to Heed Lessons of History and Compromise on Debt Ceiling

“Care Package” delivered to leaders in Congress and the White House includes essays by Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and survey indicating 75% of readers believe politicians should compromise to prevent default.
July 25, 2011

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Will Marlow,
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American Heritage Publishing
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Washington, D.C. (July 25, 2011)—Many debates in American history have been every bit as divisive as today’s clash over the debt ceiling. The Constitutional Convention was so bitterly divided that 17 of 55 representatives did not sign the final draft.

To find out what can we learn from past moments when politicians were locked in irreconcilable differences, the editors of American Heritage Magazine asked five top historians to look at how major figures in American history dealt with bitter conflicts. These experts concurred that compromise—although messy—was the only vehicle that enabled the country to move forward at key moments.

Supporting this conclusion, a survey just sent by American Heritage to 7,000 of its 500,000 readers indicated widespread agreement that opposite sides should be flexible. Over 75 percent of readers felt that "both sides should give up something to reach an agreement" in the debate over raising the debt ceiling, while only 25 percent agreed that "some issues are too important for compromise."

Respondents to the survey included a nearly equal number of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

This morning, American Heritage hand-delivered the results of its reader survey and the five essays in a "CARE Package" for America’s top political leaders to help them navigate through today’s challenges.

If history is any guide, we should not expect the resolution of the debt ceiling crisis to please all of our citizens. James Madison, the most stalwart architect of the Constitution, wrote in dismay to his old friend Thomas Jefferson in Paris that "the plan should it be adopted will neither effectively answer the national object nor prevent ... local mischiefs."

"In a crisis like the current one over the debt ceiling, neither side will emerge a total winner," said Edwin S. Grosvenor, Editor-in-Chief of American Heritage. "But compromise is usually the only way out. Although Millard Fillmore was not one of our most astute Presidents, I think his description of compromise as the ‘equality of dissatisfaction’ is apt."

The five moments looked into by American Heritage experts were:

Compromise 1The U.S. Constitution, by Joseph J. Ellis
The framers would never have written and ratified the Constitution without major compromises.

Compromise 2Missouri, Slave or Free? by Daniel Walker Howe
On the question of whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state in 1820, creative moderates brokered an ingenious compromise that averted civil war.

Compromise 3Clay and the 1850 Debate, by Robert V. Remini
Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe. Civil war was postponed for a decade, during which the North grew strong enough to ultimately win the war.

Compromise 4Whittling Down The New Deal, by David M. Kennedy
Compromise upon compromise whittled FDR’s dreams down considerably, but enabled him to pass his Social Security Act, perhaps the most sweeping social reform of the 20th century.

Compromise 5Medicare’s Complicated Birth, by Robert Dallek
LBJ was able to pass federal insurance for seniors with shrewd politics and a large dose of compromise.

While our nation’s leaders struggle to reach an agreement to avoid a Federal default on the national debt, they might want to think back over these examples in American history.

Whatever happens on the debt ceiling crisis, most of us will be as unhappy as Ben Franklin at the Constitution Convention. "I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present," said Franklin. "I consent...because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

About American Heritage

American Heritage Magazine is the oldest and most respected history magazine in America, and recently celebrated its 60th Anniversary. Launched in 1949, it quickly grew to become the nation’s preeminent history magazine overseen by Founding Editor Bruce Catton, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for A Stillness at Appomattox. Over the years American Heritage has won many honors, including the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. American Heritage recently launched a new website at www.AmericanHeritage.com, with 13,000 articles written by nearly every famous historian of the last half century. The website also includes the innovative National Portal to Historic Collections, with thousands of artifacts online from nearly 100 museums across the U.S.

Below is attached a copy of the letter from American Heritage Editor-in-Chief Edwin S. Grosvenor that was sent to:

  • Speaker of the House John Boehner
  • Majority Leader Eric Cantor
  • Representative Kevin McCarthy
  • Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
  • Representative Steny Hoyer
  • Representative Jeb Hensarling
  • Representative John Larson
  • Representative James Clyburn
  • Representative Chris Van Hollen
  • Senator Benjamin Cardin
  • Senator Daniel Inouye
  • Senator Harry Reid
  • Senator Richard Durbin
  • Senator Mitch McConnell
  • Senator Jon Kyl
  • President Barack Obama

 


Dear Speaker Boehner:

I am writing you on behalf of the 500,000 readers of American Heritage, the most respected magazine on American history for six decades.

This week, an American Heritage survey revealed that 75 percent of readers felt that "both sides should give up something to reach an agreement" in the debate over raising the debt ceiling, while only 25 percent agreed that "some issues are too important for compromise." Our readers are equally split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents whose patriotism drives them to study the lessons of history.

History shows us that when our nation faced real crises, even the bitterest of foes have been able to work together for the good of the country.

In fact, our country would probably not even exist if our Founding Fathers had not made major compromises at the Constitutional Convention. Dissatisfaction was so great with the Constitution that 17 of 55 attendees at the convention refused to sign. Benjamin Franklin wrote: "I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

In the enclosed issue, we assembled five top historians— four Pulitzer Prize-winning historians and the former official historian of the House of Representatives—to examine five critical moments in American history when compromise saved the day. The articles were:

Compromise 1: The U.S. Constitution, by Joseph J. Ellis
The framers would never have written and ratified the Constitution without major compromises.

Compromise 2: Missouri, Slave or Free? by Daniel Walker Howe
Over the question of whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a free or slave state in 1820, creative moderates brokered an ingenious compromise that averted civil war.

Compromise 3: Clay and the 1850 Debate, by Robert V. Remini
Fistfights broke out in Congress in 1850 over whether the territories just won in the Mexican War should be slave or free—and only a last-minute series of compromises prevented catastrophe.

Compromise 4: Whittling Down The New Deal, by David M. Kennedy
Compromise upon compromise whittled FDR’s dreams down considerably, but enabled him to pass his Social Security Act, perhaps the most sweeping social reform of the 20th century.

Compromise 5: Medicare’s Complicated Birth, by Robert Dallek
LBJ passes federal insurance for seniors with shrewd politics and a large dose of compromise.

At this historic moment, I hope that you find the enclosed issue useful as you work to solve the major challenges facing our country today.

Sincerely,

 

Edwin S. Grosvenor
President and Editor in Chief