Saturday, September 17, 2016

September 17, 1787: A Brief Look Back at Compromise 229 Years Later

Compromise Was a Key Factor That Produced the Constitution: Our Political Leaders Should Pause and Reflect on Its Example

Howard Christy's Painting Hanging in the U.S. Capitol
After several months of robust debate, extensive negotiation, and genuine compromise, it was on this day in 1787 that the Constitution was signed. The Constitutional Convention was filled daily with passion, harsh disagreement, and lack of unanimity. The very process of forging this document among numerous competing interests, such as small versus large States, Federalists versus Anti-Federalists, and agrarian versus industrial, was a monumental task. But in the end the delegates compromised on numerous issues and produced a document that governs us to this day. One notable exception, of course, is the ill-fated compromise regarding slavery and citizenship, ultimately remedied by our brutal Civil War and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.

While in the midst of drafting this post, I had the good fortune yesterday to meet with Congressman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico. During the meeting he noted that our political process was lacking in the spirit of compromise that made the Constitution -- and our system of government -- possible. He is right. Had compromise not been the order of the day, there is no telling where the Union of 13 independent States formed by the then already failing "Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union" (its formal title) would have ended up. None of the delegates liked all of the Constitution, and it was seen as far from perfect; but that is precisely why it emerged to later be ratified. As the Framers noted in the preamble to the Constitution, the new document was designed “to form a more perfect Union. . . .” The Framers knew that perfect was the enemy of good, and the key was to produce a better result than the deeply flawed Articles of Confederation.

George Washington, who was President of the Convention, described this spirit of compromise well in his letter transmitting the Constitution to the President of the Continental Congress, who would soon be out of a job if it were ratified:
In all our deliberations on this subject we kept steadily in our view, that which appears to us the greatest interest of every true American, the consolidation of our Union. . . . This important consideration, seriously and deeply impressed on our minds, led each state in the Convention to be less rigid on points of inferior magnitude, than might have been otherwise expected; and thus the Constitution, which we now present, is the result of a spirit of amity, and of that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensible. That it will meet the full and entire approbation of every state is not perhaps to be expected; but each will doubtless consider, that had her interest been alone consulted, the consequences might have been particularly disagreeable or injurious to others; that it is liable to as few exceptions as could reasonably have been expected, we hope and believe; that it may promote the lasting welfare of that country so dear to us all, and secure her freedom and happiness, is our most ardent wish.
Benjamin Franklin conveyed similar thoughts at the end of the Convention in a speech read for him by James Wilson:
I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. . . . In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such. . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. . . . From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats.
As we look back, perhaps more of our political leaders should set some time aside, especially after the dust settles in this contentious election cycle, to reflect on the great spirit of compromise displayed in Philadelphia that led to this less than perfect document. Despite its flaws and 27 Amendments, it has served “We the People, of the United States” quite well for almost two and a half centuries. 

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 Here are a few interesting facts about the drafting of the Constitution:
  • Only 12 States signed it, because Rhode Island never sent a delegation.
  • While the States that sent delegations had appointed 70 delegates, only 55 attended and only 39 signed. Some who attended left, and some refused to sign. Patrick Henry famously refused to attend, allegedly because he “smelt a rat” -- a push for a strong central government -- which indeed came to pass.
  • Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, two of the most important thought leaders of the founding era, were not present, as they were respectively serving as ministers to France and Great Britain.
  • Alexander Hamilton played a very small role at the Convention and was absent for large periods. Indeed, others did not support his proposed plan for the government, which was closely modeled on the British system. Yet he went on to write the majority of the Federalist Papers urging ratification, and persuaded the New York ratifying convention to support the Constitution, which had looked headed for certain defeat in New York.
  • George Washington, who was the President of the Convention, did not participate in the debates until literally the very last moment, when he spoke in favor of a proposed change concerning the number of Representatives in the House. 
  • The Convention originally had been called to formulate proposals to amend the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, amendments were required to be unanimous -- but the Constitution became effective once 9 of the 13 States ratified it. (See my prior post on ratification.) 

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