With the major political parties in Washington engaged in what seems like a perpetual shouting match that stymies progress on every front and at every turn, Constitution Day, commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, is a welcome reminder of the virtues of compromise.
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 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 reaffirms the spirit of compromise and the blessings of national unity embodied in our national framework.
The genius of our governmental system is that power is not concentrated in one individual or even one institution. The President and the Congress and the Courts can individually only do so much without the cooperation and support of the other branches of governments. Even on the momentous question of war, the Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces still has to seek the consent of the elected representatives of the people before initiating military action. The ability of each branch of the government to check the actions of the others, and the back and forth in legislative and political maneuverings, while maddeningly frustrating and incomprehensible at times, forces debate and appeals to public opinion so that consensus can be found and compromises can emerge.
The individuals of our own time, on both sides of the political spectrum, demanding their way on issues with threats of government shutdowns and defaulting on our national debt would be recognizable to the Framers in their own time. They too lived in a supercharged political atmosphere. They too had to grapple with their own passions and prejudices and reconcile the national interest with legislative gridlock, filibusters, delays, barriers, all the enemies of progress. That is why their counsel is so important and instructive to us today.
It’s what makes Benjamin Franklin’s appeal to the Convention Delegates about the virtues of compromise such a treasured American classic.
“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 well worth reflecting and acting upon, both in our Nation’s Capitol and throughout our fifty States.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) represents West Virginia’s 3rd District. For more information contact: Diane Luensmann (202) 225-3452.