Saturday, January 4, 2014

the compromised Constitution

If you visit the National Archives in Washington, you can see the signed copy of the Constitution, on display in a dimly lighted, reverential room. The words are inscribed on parchment, in an elegant calligraphy, as formal documents were done in the 18th century. Too bad they don't have a cut-and-paste version showing the many changes made during consideration by the convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

Too few people realize that the Constitution is a compromise agreement. They treat it as carved in stone as if dictated from on high, rather than as a temporary deal, balancing fears and hopes of the framers. Some conservative activists seem to believe that the framework was perfect and immutable, that it should never be changed or even interpreted differently from 18th century thinking and practice.

I've been reading a valuable book explaining the back-and-forth debate during the Philadelphia convention. Professor David Robertson makes th same argument I have made for years about how the framers acted like legislators, taking votes and accepting the outcomes, making deals that sometimes went against their principles or best interests. The grand bargain, of course, was to allow slavery in return for a stronger central government. It took a civil war to purge that action.

What struck me in Robertson's book was how often the delegates openly admitted that they were compromising for the greater good of reaching an agreement most could live with. They didn't cut a deal and pretend that their views prevailed; they argued for compromises and offered concessions -- though the deliberations were kept secret for half a century.

To compromise is not to surrender or capitulate. In politics, especially lawmaking, compromise is essential, even quintessential. But what seems to distinguish 1787 from Congress in 2013 is that lawmakers today aren't seeking deals; they're seeking victories or at least political point scoring.  When people of good will share the desire to reach an agreement, they can usually find a way. Unfortunately, too few are willing nowadays to do the hard work necessary to reach compromise agreements on big issues.

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