Summer 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 2
At five critical junctures in American history, major political compromises have proved that little of lasting consequence can occur without entrenched sides each making serious concessions
Compromise has become a bad word for many in the political sphere. Yet our history shows that it’s the way things get done and how the country moves forward. From our founders who cobbled together the Constitution to the genial dealmaking 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.
Of course, fierce political disagreement is nothing new in our nation’s capital. One president complained that his opponents were interested in “victory more than truth,” attacking him with “the most abominable misrepresentations.” That president, George Washington, was practically driven from office by what he called “arrows of malevolence” from political foes.
Since then, partisanship has devolved into impassioned shouting matches, fistfights, and a nearly fatal beating. And that was just inside the Capitol building.
Yet, it seems that 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. True, outcomes were often unsatisfying, with neither side emerging a total winner. Millard Fillmore, not known as one of our greatest presidents, did recognize the importance of compromise, which he described as the “equality of dissatisfaction.”
Sometimes, the greatest compromises sidestepped contentious issues such as slavery altogether, and may appear in retrospect to have been a devil’s bargain. Still, as a practical matter, there was no way forward if those issues remained on the table. Sometimes the hardest choices must wait for another day.
The give-and-take spirit of the Constitutional Convention is the poster child of profitable negotiation. Without crucial compromises, the states would never have been united, and probably would have ended up as three or more separate nations. Dissatisfaction was so great with the Constitution that 17 of 56 attendees at the convention refused to sign it. 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.”
With this in mind, we asked five distinguished historians to describe the most important compromises in our history, when our nation hung in the balance and divisive issues threatened to crack the foundation or even dismember the union itself. These were moments when politicians rose to the occasion and finessed apparently insoluable conflicts, enabling the nation to press forward.
Given the major problems facing the nation today, our politicians could do worse than revisit how previous generations served the interests of the country by embracing the spirit of compromise.
Here are the five articles in this issue:
Without major compromises by all involved, the framers would never have written and ratified the Constitution
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
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 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.
LBJ passes comprehensive federal insurance for seniors with shrewd politics and a strong dose of compromise