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The Lessons of Compromise for a More Perfect Union
Each year, on September 17, our Nation celebrates Constitution Day – commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.
George Washington described the Constitution as “little short of a miracle” that so many delegates from so many different states could agree on forming a system of national government. Indeed, as one author described it, “compromise can be an ugly word, signifying a pact with the devil, a chipping off of the best to suit the worst. Yet in the constitutional convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory….”
Time and again, throughout the summer of 1787, coalitions were formed and agreements were reached among the thirteen states that saved the day and allowed negotiations to progress.
The “Great Compromise” – which based representation on population in the House of Representatives, and gave an equal vote to every State in the Senate – is lauded as the breakthrough compromise that saved the Convention, assuaging the fears of the small states that they would be engulfed by the big ones.
The ability to seek consensus and find the middle-ground allowed the American experiment in democratic government to move forward, and, ultimately, to move closer to realizing the God-given rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Had vital compromises not occurred, and had the delegates not been willing to yield on ideological principles, and even to doubt their own infallible opinions, there is little dispute that the Convention would have failed and the United States may have broken apart in its infancy.
In this time of heated partisanship and seemingly intractable political issues, when the long-term interests of the Nation seem to be subjugated to the politics of the moment, Constitution Day is a welcome reminder of the spirit of compromise and the blessings of national unity embodied in our National framework.
That so many differing viewpoints can all be accommodated in one document is one of the great wonders of the Constitution and part of what has caused it to be insightfully labeled a “living document.”
The Framers came together at a tumultuous time in our Nations’ history. The stakes of their endeavor were incredibly high, and their debates were often heated and contentious. The supercharged political atmosphere that impeded national interests then – the gridlock, filibusters, delay, roadblocks, barriers, all the enemies of progress -- would be recognizable to many of us today.
It’s what makes Franklin’s appeal to the Convention Delegates about the virtues of compromise such a treasured American classic, and all the more instructive to us as we grapple with our own prejudices and passions in continuing the debate the Framers began about how best to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence.
“I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present,” Franklin counseled before the Delegates signed the document, “but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, 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….
“When you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. 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….
“I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
These are wise words and it would serve us well to reflect upon them in our Nation’s Capitol and throughout our 50 States on every Constitution Day.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s 3rd District
For more information contact: Diane Luensmann (202) 225-3452