Time for a quick and timely history lesson. “Why?” you ask. Because we’re living through a period in which our national government appears deadlocked, unable to act on any number of vital legislative fronts. While the general public favors compromise, wants both major parties to collaborate and get America moving, Senators and Congressmen in D.C. locked into unyielding partisan positions appear incapable of the give and take that can produce significant legislative initiatives.
Might recalling a chapter from our history contribute to breaking the stalemate? At the beginning of our nation and for decades thereafter, the United States moved forward and avoided serious conflict because political leaders cultivated the arts of compromise. As every school boy or girl knows, there’d be no United States of America without the Great Compromise of 1787, which offered enough to mutually distrustful large and small states to get them to approve the Constitution. The large states, given their sizeable populations, would hold sway in the House of Representatives while the smaller states (e.g., Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut), gained equal representation in the Senate. Less well-known was the compromise that assured ratification of the Constitution. Because many feared the new Federal Government might become tyrannical they urged the Constitution be rejected. When, however, pro ratification spokesmen assured them that a Bill of Rights would be added, such fears receded and the Constitution gained passage.
Living in a predominantly agrarian society most Americans were concerned with advancing the interests of farmers. Still there were people (Alexander Hamilton, most specifically) who understood that commerce and manufacturing held the key to rapid growth and future prosperity. Their recommendations were not all that popular; nonetheless, room for compromise existed. Accordingly, over the years, legislation passed providing for a National Bank (which Southern states agreed to only after a compromise was struck locating the nation’s capital in the South), for a Navy (to protect commerce), road construction and internal improvements and a tariff (to protect fledgling manufacturers). The result was balanced economic growth and an expanding manufacturing sector.
Of course the 900 pound gorilla in American politics was the slavery issue. After 1787 it continued to expand in the South while gradually disappearing from the North. This caused both sections to grow apart, leading many to wonder whether the Union could be maintained. As it turned out, for decade after decade compromises came to the rescue. The Constitution made many concessions to slavery though it also provided for an end to slave importation. Most observers understood that a balance between the number of slave and free states would serve to stabilize the political arena. Therefore, when in 1819 Missouri applied to enter the Union, compromises saved the day when it also resulted in the admission of Maine, a free state into the United States. A decade afterward South Carolina reacted angrily to tariff legislation that favored Northern producers over Southern cotton growers. After prolonged agitation, a compromise lowering tariff rates averted open conflict.
Compromises forestalled conflict but did not ease suspicions between North and South. Tensions flared anew in 1850 when a series of explosive issues involving slavery and its future expansion surfaced. Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky gained fame for promoting the Compromise of 1850, a series of legislative initiatives that managed for a time to placate Northern and Southern interests.
So, for well over half a century, compromise had kept the United States from splintering apart. But by the 1860 this approach had run its course. When Lincoln gained the presidency the South feared the worst. Though he was willing to compromise and guarantee slavery where it already existed, the South was not reassured. Secessionist activists (although a minority) managed to get one Southern state after another to secede from the United States. And not long afterward large scale civil war engulfed the land.
The moral here should be clear and instructive. Our forefathers, from the outset preached the art of compromise and thereby enabled the nation, despite the sharp divisions that existed to advance and expand. And when that approach was rejected disorder followed. Should not our current leaders take heed and take heart from the fact that compromise had long been the American way and the key to our early success.