The U.S. Congress continues to have serious problems in reaching agreement on a variety of issues critical to this nation’s well-being. The gridlock is caused primarily by conservatives who believe the word “compromise” means caving in to the opposition. Those in the Republican Party, for example, who are occasionally willing to give some ground, are quickly labeled RINOs (Republicans in name only).
Americans familiar with this country’s history find that attitude troubling. The U.S. Constitution, often described as the greatest document ever written in the history of mankind, was built on what have come to be known as “The Great Compromises.”
The 55 men who wrote the Constitution went to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 with widely divergent views about how our democracy should be fashioned. Out of the 13 states, only Rhode Island wasn’t represented at the meetings that took place at Independence Hall.
The first major decision centered on how Congress should be constituted. Smaller states wanted one house (unicameral), and the larger states recommended two houses (bicameral).
Edmund Randolph introduced the “Virginia Plan” that was drafted by James Madison. It provided that the membership of each house would be based on population, and that would give the larger states the greatest representation. But that wasn’t all. Since the president, judges and other officers were to be appointed by Congress, the larger states would be in complete control of much of the federal government.
William Patterson introduced the “New Jersey Plan” that called for a unicameral Congress where all states would be equally represented in the one house.
“Magruder’s American Government,” a civics textbook written by William A. McClenaghan, said the debate over this issue lasted for weeks. And the solution to the deadlock has come to be known as the greatest of the Constitution’s compromises.
Roger Sherman of Connecticut, suggested the compromise that was accepted. It said Congress would consist of two houses, a Senate composed of two senators from each state, and a House whose members would be selected based on each state’s population. The bigger the state, the more representatives it would have.
That compromise created another problem. Should the Southern states be allowed to count their slaves when figuring population? The text says this argument was fierce. The delegates finally agreed to a compromise that said those states could count all “free persons” but only “three-fifths of other persons.” The compromise became null and void at the end of the War Between the States.
The next compromise settled an argument over control of commerce. If the national government were in control, Southerners were afraid the North might shut off its profitable cotton trade with England. The compromise said Congress could regulate interstate and foreign commerce, but it was forbidden to tax exports, favor one port over another or interfere with the slave trade until at least 1808.
Another compromise settled the issue of whether the president should be chosen by Congress or by direct popular election. The convention spent more time on that issue than anything else. Delegates thought direct election would lead to disorder and mob rule and the people were too scattered to know enough about the candidates.
Election by Congress was favored first, but the framers decided to set up the Electoral College that still exists today. States were allowed to decide how to pick their electors, but that was changed when the 12th Amendment was adopted in 1804. It set up popular votes for president in the states, and those candidates winning the most popular votes in each state won its electoral votes.
McClenaghan writes, “And so it went. In many ways, and perhaps very important to its great and lasting strength, the Constitution is a “bundle of compromises.”
Compromises don’t come easily. All sides have to give a little in order to be successful. And historians say that was true of the Constitution. Most of the framers weren’t completely satisfied with the finished product, but it has stood the test of time.
Benjamin Franklin spoke for many of the delegates after their job was done.
“I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; … I doubt whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution,” Franklin said. “For 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; and I think it will astonish our enemies…”
Indeed, it has astonished friends and foes alike. Other countries have democracies, but none as successful and tried and tested as the one created by the Constitution of the United States of America.
Obviously, the men and women in Congress today don’t remember how our founding fathers were able to overcome the same prejudices, passions, opinions, local interests and selfish views that have surfaced in modern day Washington, D.C. It’s through a process called compromise, what the dictionary describes as “an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.”
You don’t have to sell your soul or sacrifice your principles when you compromise on difficult issues. Great men and women in American history have been doing it for the last 226 years.