Looming weeks away is America’s “fiscal cliff.” President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are both optimistic that a deal on spending cuts and taxes can be reached. But Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the former bipartisan deficit commission, says there’s only a one-third chance Washington will reach an agreement in time to avoid the fiscal precipice.
What Washington seems to have forgotten is that America was established by men who disagreed sorely, but created a government founded on the philosophy that varying views could be coalesced for the common good. As challenging as these modern issues are, consider the questions grappled with by the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The delegates were faced with deciding the composition of the House and Senate, the method of electing the president, the structure and jurisdiction of the federal courts, and whether to count slaves for the purpose of representation and taxation. They had to agree on a tariff policy, the slave trade, the assumption of state debts, the admission of new states, the procedure for amending the Constitution, the control of the militia, and restrictions upon the states, and general relationship of the national and state governments.
A majority quickly decided that the Articles of Confederation (the precursor agreement to the Constitution) needed to be replaced by a new document that ensured a stronger national government. But there were conflicting opinions over how the new government should look. This was to be expected given the divergent economic and geographic circumstances of the states the delegates represented. On many of these issues, a resolution came only after a long and bitter debate. The Constitution was born only after a series of imaginative compromises were agreed upon.
Take for example, the Three-Fifths Compromise. At the insistence of delegates from southern states, Congress was denied the power to limit the slave trade for a minimum of 20 years, and slaves – although denied the vote and not recognized as citizens by those states – were allowed to be counted as 3/5 persons for the purpose of apportioning representatives and determining presidential electoral votes.
Most important, perhaps, delegates compromised on the thorny issue of apportioning members of Congress, an issue that had bitterly divided the larger and smaller states. The small states wanted each state to have the same number of representatives, and the large states wanted representation determined by population. Under a plan put forward by delegate Roger Sherman of Connecticut (known as the Connecticut Compromise), representation in the House of Representatives would be based on population, while each state would be guaranteed an equal two senators in the new Senate.
Although the delegates at the 1787 Convention faced an arduous challenge, the document they drafted continues to be the foundation of American government and political thought to this day. Compromise worked then, and it can work now.
Shortly after the work of the convention was completed, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter on the importance of compromise: “It is necessary to give as well as take in a government like ours." And in another piece of correspondence, he echoed: "I see the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.”
Earlier, on Sept. 17, 1787, the final day of the convention, Benjamin Franklin delivered a remarkable closing address to the proceedings. Biographer Walter Isaacson tells us that Franklin’s speech is “perhaps the best ever written by anyone about the magic of the American system and the spirit of compromise that created it.”
“Mr. President,” Franklin begins, “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve 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. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others....
“I doubt too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; 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....The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good...”
While Franklin put it most eloquently, a number of other delegates were similarly motivated. George Washington, for example, wrote that he “was ready to have embraced any tolerable compromise that was competent to save us from impending ruin.”
In 1787, as the 13 colonies debated the merits of the proposed Constitution, John Adams told John Jay: “The public mind cannot be occupied about a nobler object than the proposed plan of government. It appears to be admirably calculated to cement all America in affection and interest as one great nation. A result of accommodation and compromise cannot be supposed perfectly to coincide with any one's ideas of perfection. But all the great principles necessary to order, liberty, and safety are respected in it, and provision is made for correction and amendments as they may be found necessary.”
Today's lawmakers aren't simply tasked with forging a budget deal. They'll need to make tough decisions on the problems facing this country long after Jan. 1, 2013: the federal debt ceiling, entitlement reform, taxes, health care, unemployment, energy and environment, immigration, and education. The impasses are daunting, but they aren't insurmountable.
Washington should listen to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers for a moment. Our government isn’t broken. We have just momentarily forgotten how the Framers went about creating it.
Stephen W. Stathis served for 38 years as a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. His most recent book is “Landmark Debates in Congress: From the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq.”