At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin displayed a savvy grasp of how to use compromise. Not wanting to offend the Constitution’s dissenters, he proposed the document be signed “by the unanimous consent of the States present,” rather than individuals.
Using compromise, Franklin instructed delegates to arrange themselves by state. Each delegation filed to the table, where supporters signed the Constitution. Some hesitantly affixed their signatures because they didn’t completely endorse the Constitution. Factions they represented back home saw little merit in states sharing power with the federal government.
Franklin’s compromise of state delegations signing the document shielded individual delegates from the wrath of their anti-government constituents. He believed the political arc of compromise curved toward a flourishing Republic. It shielded the Constitution from critics who exercised a “morbid craving of controversy and for dispute over words” (I Timothy 6:4). Critics had their say but didn’t control the day.
Delegates endorsed the Constitution on Monday, Sept. 17, 1787. James Madison and allies conceived of this new governing plan to replace the Articles of Confederation, which had burdened colonies with mounting debt and divisive tugs of war.
Madison proposed strong central government to offset states’ rights. Patrick Henry refused to attend the convention because of it, pinching his nose because he “smelled a rat.” Rhode Island’s delegates, upset at the consolidation of power in Washington City, stayed home.
Controversy raged during the convention. Tensions erupted between pro-slave vs. anti-slave factions; between more vs. less populous states; and between northern vs. southern colonies. The Constitution survived because compromise was used to win three key debates.
Southern states demanded more voting power, even though their rural communities were less populated than those in the middle colonies. The South wanted to count slaves as a voting bloc, even though Negroes couldn’t vote. The compromise: Each slave counted for three-fifths of a vote. Although contrived, this compromise saved the Republic’s sputtering constitutional engine from freezing up.
Next, tempers erupted over equal representation in the two house legislature (bicameral). A deal was cut. Satisfying large states, House representation was by population; satisfying small states, the Senate was composed of two representatives per state. Again, compromise broke a logjam over representation.
Moreover, the North and South made negotiated deals over slave trade and navigation rights for river traffic. Election of the president turned into a sticky issue, too. Would large states dominate because their popular vote might sweep into office favored candidates, leaving southern states with weak voices? Balancing the power to decide, delegates endorsed a cumbersome solution named the Electoral College. Again, compromise worked for the nation’s common good.
Once delegates signed the Constitution, compromise was used to win its ratification by states. Virginia’s George Mason declared he would rather have his right hand chopped off than sign the Constitution, which lacked a Bill of Rights.
At first, Madison dug in his heels, arguing such a bill would deprive — not preserve — citizens’ rights. Madison feared that if a Bill of Rights were attached to the Constitution, Uncle Sam could usurp any rights not denoted, leaving citizens defenseless. Finally, Madison compromised. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. Consequently, a majority of states ratified it.
Ironic, isn’t it, how critics of compromise become the Constitution’s severest public enemies, even though they claim ardent support for this formative document?
For instance, Rush Limbaugh doesn’t regard compromise as his cup of tea. Before last year’s Republican presidential debates, he unleashed diatribes that clash with the Constitution’s compromising spirit. Rush ranted, “Winners do not compromise with themselves. The winners who do compromise are winners who don’t believe in themselves as winners, who still think themselves as losers.”
Rush’s tangled grammar and garbled rhetoric don’t hide disdain for compromise.
The tea party strongly endorses Limbaugh’s bias. Both use ideological purity as a battering ram to crush compromise. Sycophants clamor for political purity when voting, refute conciliation, won’t negotiate and denigrate compromising across the political aisle. Such rigidity crashes against constitutional walls that don’t crumble. Our Constitution stands!
History validates that there would be no Constitution without compromise.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.