When I read the news this morning, and almost every morning the last few years, I couldn’t help but worry about the state of our country, not from a republican or democrat point of view, but from the inability of government to move forward on key issues that we need resolved. We seem to have lost the ability to compromise, to find a middle ground that nobody finds perfect, but most can agree will help. Many of us who sit in the middle, who can often but not always see points on both sides of an argument, wonder why some middle ground can’t be found.
I got into a discussion once with an individual who became quite agitated when I said that in reality, government was a great deal about compromise. The person insisted that government “was about the will of the people”. I could not disagree with that point at all, but tried to explain that if government was “about the will of the people”, and everyone didn’t have the same will (which is usually the case), and both sides couldn’t be completely right or completely wrong all the time, didn’t someone have to compromise. The reply was that you never compromised if you were on the right side. At that point I used an old and wise debating tactic that has served many people well through the years. I smiled and gave up.
Think about it! If everyone took a hard line that they were right, that everyone who agreed with them was right, and there was no way they were ever going to accept help or advise from someone who disagreed with them, in fact developed a bitter distrust for them, many institutions in our country would be in trouble. There would be no marriages that succeeded, partnerships in business would not exist, and education, religion, and everything else would be autocratic. We compromise in our life daily in everything from what we’re eating for lunch, what TV show we’re going to watch, even to speed limits. When government loses that ability to work things out, yes compromise, how can we expect it to work?
In 1787, Benjamin Franklin was considered the wisest man in America. He had been dispensing wisdom for years in a well-known published column in Boston called “Poor Richard”. He had supposedly harnessed lightning with a kite, convinced France to come to the aid of America in the revolution, and had negotiated the Treaty of Paris which made England finally recognize America’s sovereignty. Second to George Washington, he was considered one of the legendary figures in his time and a Founding Father of our country. He still is today. I read a biography of his life and he was well recognized as being hard headed. On September 17th of 1787, he rose to speak in favor of a draft Constitution and, by doing so, helped show and exhibit the spirit of compromise and conciliation that he knew was necessary to forge a democratic nation, and to help that nation survive. For a hard headed individual, it was a tough but necessary compromise.
Contrary to popular understanding, the Constitution of our Country was not written until a little over 11 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In May 1787, 42 delegates from 12 States (from what I read Rhode Island did not participate) came together in Philadelphia to try and develop a constitution for a new, stronger federal government. Even though he was almost twice as old as most of the delegates, Franklin participated for four months in sweltering heat through vigorous debates to try and find common ground to preserve or nation. State’s rights, slavery, the authority of the executive, westward expansion, liberty, personal rights, and many other issues were addressed, many of which were included in the final document. The meeting, which George Washington was to later call a “miracle”, was held in secret with sentries posted at every door. That would have been problematic today with open meeting laws. Although many expected the Constitution to be a temporary fix for our young country, it has withstood countless attacks and countries across the globe have tried to replicate it.
What made Franklin’s speech on September 17thof that year so remarkable were the concessions he made in his hard headed opinion. In order to find a document that would hold the country together, and that would find support from the 9 States necessary to ratify it, he recognized it would not have everything in it he or anyone else wanted. In fact, it may have some things in it he didn’t want. Yet it would be a combination of compromise the masses could support. Many famous people, even Thomas Jefferson, had mixed feelings about it and even questioned its need. Jefferson was in Paris at the time. Patrick Henry, the legendary revolutionary figure opposed it saying it would squash individual liberties. Others like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington supported it. As Franklin said on that day while addressing the President of the Assembly “Sir, I consent to this Constitution because I expect no better, and I am sure it is not the best”. He had made the statement earlier in his speech that the older he got, the more he tended to pay more respect to the judgment of others. The Constitution was not perfect in his, or anyone’s opinion at that time, but it was an example of compromise that the majority would find acceptable.
I rarely attend meetings where everyone agrees on anything. I also recognize that particularly in government and regulation, compromise is the only mechanism of ever getting anything done. The balance between two groups of individuals is rarely uneven. In fact, in most discussions, you will find that one side feels it is infallible, while the other believes it is never wrong. To get things done most of us must come to grips with the fact that few of us are completely right all of the time. Call it compromise, conciliation, or concession, we each have to pull a little, and give a little to get the line adjusted correctly. As a wise man once told me, you have to admit that someone else is right occasionally, and at least value their opinion even if you disagree with them.
It often seems that the stronger objective today is to make the other side look wrong rather than work on the problem, or it becomes a “campaign” issue. While I believe one should never compromise on their values, many issues that exist today are those that everyone recognizes are a problem. Maybe the best approach would be to support candidates that work for solutions, not those that can simply take a stance. Looking back over our history as a nation, I wonder where we would be if our founding Fathers “postured” instead of worked.
I think the closure of Franklin’s speech sums it up. “On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish, that every member of the Convention, who may still have objections to it (the Constitution), would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and make manifest of Unanimity, put his name to this Instrument.” How many meetings would you like to close on that note rather than on an argument?