We Should Heed History's Lessons on Compromise

Posted 8/1/2011

It's ironic that compromise has become a dirty word for many of the same politicians who profess such reverence for the Constitution and Founding Fathers.

We are a nation conceived in compromise, whose very existence was saved at least three times by deals cobbled together by politicians bitterly divided on principle.

At the start of the Constitutional Convention, delegates had such varied political views that few could imagine a strong Federal union emerging from the existing loose Confederation of separate and diverse former colonies. Small states so distrusted large ones that tiny Rhode Island never even showed up at the Convention.

It is highly doubtful the Southern states would ever have joined the new nation at its beginning without the compromise of the "Two Thirds Rule." This accommodation, which strikes modern observers as particularly abhorrent, meant that a plantation owner with 100 slaves could vote 60 times for Federal office holders while a Yankee farmer voted only once.

Dissatisfaction was so great with the proposed Constitution that 17 of 56 attendees at the Convention refused to sign it. Skeptical Ben 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."

Three score years later, after victory in the Mexican War brought the opportunity for Texas, California and the other Southwestern territories to join the Union, Congress was bitterly divided over whether slavery would be extended into these new lands where previously it hadn't existed.

Debate became so bitter in the late 1840s that speeches in Congress would end in fistfights and even a massive brawl. "Had a bomb exploded in the hall," recalled the sergeant-at-arms, "there could not have been greater excitement."

Only the clever Compromise of 1850 worked out by Henry Clay and other elder statesmen in the Senate saved the nation at the very moment Southern delegates were meeting in Nashville to discuss secession. Delaying the Civil War for ten years allowed the North to gain in population and manufacturing capacity that eventually enabled it to win the struggle to hold the Union together.

The readers of American Heritage share a concern over the refusal of certain members of Congress to compromise. Over 75% of them answered "yes" to the statement that "both sides should give up something to reach an agreement," while 25% state that "politicians should reject unacceptable outcomes."

Certainly there have been defining moments in American history when leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King refused to compromise. But a study of our nation's past shows that compromise is usually the way things get done and the country moves forward. From our Founders to the genial deal making of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, the will to compromise has proven not only a virtue, but our saving grace in times of crisis.

Neither side will emerge a total winner. Millard Fillmore, U.S. President at the time of the Compromise of 1850, aptly called it the "equality of dissatisfaction."

But when our nation faced real crises, even the bitterest of foes have been able to work together for the good of the country. Instead of violence, secession, or deadlock, compromise brought settlement.

We should look to the wisdom of past leaders for guidance today.

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We Should Heed History's Lessons on Compromise

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