Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Great Compromise*

What is it about the word "compromise" that tends to raise the hackles of those who hear or read it? To many, any compromise is regarded as the shameful abandonment of principle. Perhaps the best example of the negative visions that the word conjures is the Munich debacle in the fall of 1938. Neville Chamberlain, trying desperately to avoid another catastrophic war with Germany, sold the fledgling Republic of Czechoslovakia down the river, thus, making another catastrophic war with Germany inevitable.

Against such a backdrop, it is well to remember that the word "compromise" was not always considered epithetical. In any society, interests — even principled interests — will inevitably clash. For a society to survive, means must be found to resolve those differences peacefully. And not all conflicts are susceptible to win-win resolutions. The great British statesman, Edmund Burke, for one, regarded compromise as an essential and beneficial part of the human condition. See my post of May 26, 2008, "The Best Compromise That Never Was?."

In order to counter the prejudice against all compromise, it is useful from time to time to discuss historical examples of some that proved to be fortunate. The first that springs to my mind was reached in July of 1787 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia (pictured above). As I have stated before, the drafting of the United States Constitution involved "a high-stakes negotiation among many distinct interest groups." See "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Plan," May 25, 2008. Potentially the most crippling dispute facing the delegates dealt with the question of how the national legislature would be constituted. Delegates from larger states like Virginia favored election of representatives based on population. This, its adherents believed, would assure a legislative body truly national in character. Opponents of this concept, chiefly from the less populous states, believed that each state should have equal representation, else the smaller states would lose all power in the national government.

More than mere self-interest was involved in the debate; both sides supported their positions with principled arguments. The question occupied the delegates for a month, with almost no progress toward resolution being made. The issue was so divisive that many despaired of overcoming it and feared that the Convention would dissolve in failure as a result. Fortunately, most delegates were committed to the success of the endeavor, and ultimately took the larger view that without some compromise of principle, the entire American experiment would miscarry. Thus, they recognized that the larger principle of national unity was on the line, without which all other principles would be irrelevant. A so-called "Grand Committee," with members from each state, was formed to study the issue over the Fourth of July recess. One of its members was Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the concept of proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) — which was to be given the exclusive power to generate revenue bills — but equal representation for each state in the upper house (Senate).†

It took almost two more weeks, but ultimately the delegates approved the compromise by a narrow margin. Eventually even James Madison, one of the most strident of those opposed to anything but 100% proportional representation, put the issue behind him.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

* For background on this post, I am indebted to William L. Shirer’s classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1966), and Richard Beeman’s more recent Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (New York: Random House, 2009).

† The concept of mixed representation — the people represented in the lower house and the states represented in the upper house — was based on a proposal floated the previous month by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, which is why the result is sometimes called the "Connecticut Compromise." But the idea didn’t get a lot of traction until Franklin wined and dined the members of the Grand Committee, tweaked it a bit, and lent it his support.

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