By Mark Franke
Compromise. This word wouldn’t score well on a favorability scale these days. People today, and not just politicians, seem to pride themselves in their rigidity of opinion and ossification of rational thought processes. We seem to be living in a world driven to ideological destruction and too many of us are cheering it on.
So what is different about our generation compared to those before? I would propose very little; at least that is my reading of our history. This defect of the human condition has challenged the well-being of our nation in the past and is certainly challenging us now.
Friday was Constitution Day by act of Congress. When Congress passed the bill setting this date (Sept. 17), it had the hope that citizens would take a moment to reflect on the genius of our founding document, on its resilience in speaking across generations and on the immutability of its basic principles of limited self-government.
Colleges and universities which receive federal student financial aid funds, and essentially all do with a few notable exceptions such as Hillsdale College, are required by the law to offer educational programs for their students on this day. And if any group of citizens need this instruction, it is college students.
What I find most intriguing about the Constitution is how it came about. The group of men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 were not there to sing kumbaya around a campfire. They were as opinionated as we are today, if not more so. Just read about some of the debates held, ostensibly behind closed doors but carefully documented for posterity by James Madison and other diarists inside the hall.
There were ideological and practical differences which divided the delegates from day one. Small states recognized the importance of acting together to preserve their standing relative to the large states, which likewise saw benefit in joint action to effectively exercise their presumed power. The Virginia and New Jersey plans were the first salvos in the battle between these two groups.
This was a battle of practicality, the division of power among the states in the new order. The largest states — Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York — were understandably unhappy with the one state-one vote rule under the Articles of Confederation. The smallest states — Delaware, New Hampshire, Georgia and Rhode Island — likewise were understandably concerned about becoming irrelevant if things were changed in too radical a fashion.
Underlying all this debate was an ideological divide between those called federalists and those described as anti-federalists. This was the crucible of the convention’s debates. How much power and authority would be centralized in the general government, as it was typically called back then, and how much would remain with the individual states? This was no easy question to resolve; it influenced most of the individual decisions taken.
The Virginia Plan created a powerful national government and weakened the individual states to anachronisms. I exaggerate here, but not by much. The New Jersey Plan did just the opposite, maintaining powerfully sovereign states with a central government only incrementally more powerful than under the Articles of Confederation.
What to do? Give up and go home? This is where the first great compromise in American history literally saved the day. Proposed by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, a state right in the middle of the large-small continuum, the Connecticut Plan put in place the governmental structure we have today. The House of Representatives would be the local voice of government, democratically elected by small constituencies and representing the voice of the people. The Senate would represent the states in equal proportion, providing a modicum of protection for the small states. And the President would be elected by the people but mediated through the states in the Electoral College.
Sherman’s proposal is rightly called the Great Compromise of 1787. Without it there would have been no United States of America. Still, it only passed by one vote. We Americans have always been contentious to a fault.
The call to this convention stated its purpose as amending the Articles of Confederation but the delegates quickly realized the old structure could not support a new nation with large ambitions. What they produced is, in my opinion, the greatest charter of governance ever put to paper. Flaws it may have but it has survived for 235 years as the foundation for an exceptional nation built on personal liberty and economic opportunity.
Our beloved Constitution was birthed by compromise but must be defended resolutely against those who see it as a stumbling block to their goals of political and economic power. On this day of remembrance, let us rededicate ourselves to a document that has not only made us a great people but, most importantly, has kept us a free people.