Compromises at the Constitutional Convention: Principled?

When is compromise right? When is it wrong? When I look at historical compromises, I try to apply this rule:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

Let’s take the Constitutional Convention as an example.

The delegates who comprised the convention that led to our current Constitution had to grapple with a number of controversial issues. The two most prominent were how to carry out proper representation and how to incorporate the existence of slavery within the document.

On the issue of representation, states with greater population argued that they should have more say in the making of the laws. After all, they had more people, so it only seemed fair to them.

The smaller states, however, fearing that they would always be outvoted on matters of concern to them that might not concern larger states, called for equal representation in the newly proposed government.

Who had the better argument?

In this case, both were making good points. Both arguments had validity.

Consequently, a compromise was forged that led to setting up two houses in the national legislature (as opposed to one in the Congress established by the Articles of Confederation). The House of Representatives would be allotted a proportional number of members based on each state’s population while the Senate would have two members from each state, thereby providing a chamber where the smaller states had an equal vote.

In my view, this was an acceptable compromise that answered the concerns of both parties. No one sacrificed a principle.

The other thorny issue was whether to count the slaves as part of the population of a state. If all slaves were counted, that would definitely give slave states a higher number of representatives in the House. The Southern states, therefore, favored this position.

Northern states, many of whom had already abolished slavery while others were in the process of doing so, thought that would be unfair. After all, as Gouverneur Morris of New York postulated in the debate,

Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included?

Fair question. What was to be done?

The convention came up with this compromise: count 3/5 of the slave population toward a state’s representation (not all the slaves, as the South desired); allow the Congress, twenty years hence, to pass a law that would prohibit the importation of more slaves into the country.

That latter provision was based on a sincere wish that most of those delegates had: the eventual elimination of slavery in America. They hoped that such a law would dry up the slave population over time.

Incidentally, twenty years later, Congress did pass that law.

Was this an acceptable compromise? People are divided on that. Personally, I would have welcomed a stronger stance against slavery, but I also understand the tenor of the times and the limitations on what that convention needed to accomplish.

The Constitutional Convention couldn’t hope to achieve unanimity on the issue of the continuance of slavery. What it could hope to achieve was to set up a working government that could then deal more fully with the issue.

That was accomplished. The sad fact that Congress, over the next few decades, didn’t come to grips with slavery as it should have is not something that should be laid at the feet of those at the Convention.

In fact, based on what they knew at the time, there was good reason to believe slavery was already on its way out. It was not as profitable as expected.

What changed? How about the invention of the cotton gin seven years later, which made slavery far more profitable?

Let’s not play a blame game that holds people responsible for something that happened seven years in the future. That would be like holding people in 2018 responsible for something that will occur in 2025 that alters the whole perspective of an issue.

We’re not really all that good at knowing what the future holds, given the millions of individual choices of citizens that will be made along the way.

It’s possible, therefore, to consider even that slavery compromise as a principled one, despite the disrepute it has earned over time.

The main lesson here, I believe, is to work toward compromises that move the ball toward what one wants to see eventually. Any step in the right direction should be welcomed.

Rule of Law & the Constitutional Convention

In our era, when the rule of law seems to be weakening, it’s instructive to look back at how our cornerstone document, the Constitution, came into being. The 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, saw a loose-knit assemblage of states that were in danger of splitting apart permanently. Those with concern for the rule of law and who had a vision for a better system urged a meeting of all the states to address the governmental crisis.

Twelve of the thirteen states responded to that call—tiny Rhode Island excepted due to fear of being overwhelmed by any change in the government—and sent delegates to Philadelphia. They met in this building in the summer of 1787, newly called Independence Hall, the place where they also debated and passed the Declaration of Independence eleven years earlier.

Of the thirty-nine individuals who eventually signed off on the new Constitution, over half had some training in the law. Lawyer jokes aside, that’s rather important, and was doubly so at that time, since all of them perceived of law as emanating from God ultimately, and not man.

They held to the conviction that man’s laws had to be in concert with God’s laws; otherwise, they would be invalid.

Half of the delegates had either attended or graduated from college. While that might seem to be a low percentage from the perspective of the twenty-first century, that was a high percentage in that era.

Further, thirty-three had served in the Continental Congress during the Revolution, a mark of stability and experience in governmental affairs. This was not to be an assembly of radicals who wanted to change everything.

Then, by choosing George Washington to preside over the convention, they provided its deliberations a respectability that all Americans would have to take seriously.

One delegate showed up with a plan: James Madison, probably the best researcher in the nation on the issue of good and effective government, offered his Virginia Plan, which became the basis for the debate as the convention went forward.

Madison’s influence was strong throughout that summer. He spoke frequently (second-highest number of speeches) and kept a record of what everyone said. Later, after all the delegates had died, his notes were published, and that book is now considered one of the most valuable of all American historical documents.

Another man, too infirm to be a delegate at this time, nevertheless made his mark on the Constitution because he was Madison’s mentor. Rev. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, guided all of Madison’s intellectual pursuits. They had even worked together in the Continental Congress.

Witherspoon is credited, during his time at the college (later to be renamed Princeton) with graduating, along with the expected ministers, many men who later became governmental leaders. Four others at the convention, besides Madison, had studied under Witherspoon. Overall, the graduates during his tenure account for a future president (Madison), a vice president (Aaron Burr, but don’t hold that against Witherspoon), nine cabinet officers, twenty-one senators, thirty-nine congressmen, three US Supreme Court justices, and twelve state governors.

There is ample reason to accept the title many have bestowed on Witherspoon as “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America.”

Some of what occurred at the Constitutional Convention will be the subject of a future post. Sufficient for today is the result: a system of government that gave precedence to the rule of law for a fledgling nation and that has helped that nation survive many tumultuous episodes. Regardless of our concerns with how our government may be functioning now, we can still feel some measure of confidence in its stability due to the wisdom of those who constructed it.

Principle & Compromise: Not Always at Odds

I’ve called this blog Pondering Principles because I’m dedicated to laying a principled foundation for whatever subject I scrutinize. I also want to see principles—Biblical principles—become the basis for all public policy. Those of us oriented toward principles have a natural aversion to compromise; we have a tendency to see all compromise as a step backward. I would like to argue that is not the case.

Let’s start historically and work our way to present-day issues.

At the Constitutional Convention, a major disagreement erupted between states with lesser populations and those with greater. The less-populated states desired representation in the Congress to be based on equality; they wanted an equal vote for all states. Their concern was they would be outvoted on everything if population became the cornerstone of representation. Larger states naturally felt the opposite: since they had the most people, they should have a greater say in legislation. Who was correct? I think both had valid points. Their concerns were genuine and needed to be addressed. The convention came up with a compromise that divided the Congress into two houses, one based on population, the other on equality.

That is an example of an excellent compromise because it didn’t sacrifice principle on either side. Without that compromise, there would have been no Constitution. The nation might have split into three or four warring factions, with all the misery that would have been connected with such a division.

Then there’s the example of New York state during the governorship of John Jay at the turn of the nineteenth century. Jay, an evangelical Christian, had often worked for the abolition of slavery in his state. Now, as governor, he had the opportunity to sign into law a gradual emancipation bill. This bill did not free all slaves immediately; rather, it laid out a plan that would eventually eliminate slavery in the next generation. As someone who believed slavery was contrary to God’s purposes, should Jay have signed such a bill? He had no hesitation in doing so. Why? Because it set slavery on the course of extinction in New York. Long before the Civil War decided that issue nationally, New York had resolved it gradually.

Was Jay disobeying God in signing that bill? I believe just the opposite. His was a principled position. The compromise of gradual abolition achieved the long-term goal of his principle—getting rid of slavery once and for all. The new law made a step in the right direction. Therefore, I consider his action to have been consistent with his principles. Not to have signed it meant the perpetuation of the slavery institution, not its demise.

Now let’s bring this up to date. Let me offer two more examples.

First, let’s look at the issue of abortion. I firmly believe that the taking of an innocent human life is immoral. It is opposed to God’s moral law. My principled position is that all abortions should be outlawed. What if, as a legislator, I were faced with a decision on a particular bill that would eliminate 95% of all abortions in America? Should I vote for it? If I were president, should I sign it into law?

There are some who would say no. Why? They consider it a compromise of principle. Any law that doesn’t eliminate all abortions is less than what God requires. Consequently, support for a proposed law that would take care of “only” 95% of them would be a sin.

Again, I disagree—vehemently. If I have the opportunity to save 95% [or even 50% or 10%] of all babies who would otherwise have their lives snuffed out arbitrarily, I must take that opportunity. I would be advancing the principle in which I believe. By supporting such a measure, I am moving my society closer to God’s purposes. If we take an all-or-nothing approach, I believe we are deceiving ourselves in believing we are standing on principle. I would call it stubborn foolishness instead.

Congress is going to be dealing with raising the debt ceiling again soon. I am opposed to doing so. I am opposed to raising taxes in any way that will harm those who provide jobs for others. I wholeheartedly seek spending cuts. Now, do I hold out for everything I want or is there a way to advance what I believe is principled even while compromising temporarily?

One thing that all principled conservatives have to recognize is that in politics you don’t always get everything you want immediately. We can, though, push for as much as may be possible.

If an agreement is reached, for instance, that raises the debt ceiling, yet also includes “real” spending cuts, a cap on future spending, no increase in taxes, and at least a vote on a balanced budget amendment, why would I not support this? Enacting measures like these would lead us further on the path toward a principled and sane tax-and-spend framework.

Here’s how I summarize it: a compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

I wish I could convince everyone of the wisdom of this perspective, but I’ll settle for whoever has ears to hear.

Snyderian Truism #12

The word “compromise” can give off both positive and negative vibes. Is it a good word or one to avoid? Well, the answer is “yes.” What do I mean? It depends on the particular compromise. Here’s how I try to encapsulate it in one pithy statement:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

Constituitonal ConventionThis comes up when I teach about the Constitutional Convention. At one point, the Convention was locked in a disagreement that threatened to bring an end to the attempt to write a new constitution. Large states said that since they had more people, representation in the new government should be based on population. Smaller states responded that if population were the basis for representation, they would always be outvoted and their interests never taken into consideration.

Which position was more correct? Which one was more valid?

I ask my students those questions and then have them vote for which position they support. The vote is always divided. Why? Because both positions make valid points. Yes, states with more population should have a greater say in lawmaking. Yet it would be unfair for smaller states to always be in the minority and lose every vote. That kind of domination would lead to constant friction and resentment.

It was at this juncture at the Convention where a compromise was reached: the delegates decided to have a two-chamber legislature—the House of Representatives based on population and the Senate with an equal vote for each state.

This was a principled compromise. Both sides had good reasons for their positions, and the compromise allowed both to be achieved, providing a balance of the two.

If a compromise, however, throws out a principle, then it should be rejected. For instance, Obamacare’s supposed accommodation for religious liberty doesn’t recognize the basic principle that government cannot override religious beliefs and force people to abandon their beliefs to achieve the government’s objectives. All such “compromises” need to be opposed.

CompromiseThere are some Christians who don’t grasp the essential nature of a principled compromise. Take abortion, for instance. I believe it should be banned totally. Some who agree with me on that have stated they can never support any law that doesn’t go the entire distance and ban all abortions. They say to settle for anything less would be unrighteous. I disagree. If a law reduces the number of abortions, it’s a law trending in the right direction. More lives will be saved with such a law; we will be closer to the ideal of our principle. We will have made progress. Therefore, I would support any law that lessens abortion’s hold on our nation.

The line is not always as easy to find, and there are instances when honest and conscientious people may come to different conclusions as to what they can support. Yet I believe it is a truism that we can achieve principled compromises, and we should seek them actively.

Madison’s Montpelier

James Madison 1Having toured Jefferson’s Monticello on Tuesday, it only made sense to visit the home of his compatriot, James Madison, which he called Montpelier. There are many accomplishments to attribute to Madison and, in my opinion, he holds a higher place of honor than Jefferson in the saga of the Founding.

Madison attended the College of New Jersey—now Princeton—and studied under its president, John Witherspoon, a clergyman who arrived from Scotland prior to the Revolution. Witherspoon is called by some “The Man Who Shaped the Men Who Shaped America” because he tutored so many early political leaders as well as ministers. They include one president [Madison], one vice president, thirteen governors, three Supreme Court justices, twenty senators, and thirty-three congressmen. Witherspoon also was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Madison learned much from his mentor and applied it to the science of government. As a result, when he showed up at what we now call the Constitutional Convention, he had thoroughly studied the history of representative governments and came prepared to offer his plan for the reformation of the Articles of Confederation, which weren’t workable. The heart of his plan became the new Constitution, thereby earning him the title of “Father of the Constitution.” He even kept detailed notes on the debates, writing in shorthand, then later transcribing the notes into fuller accounts. Those were eventually published as Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention, a foundational piece of American history.

He engineered the Bill of Rights through the Congress and then out to the states for ratification. During Jefferson’s presidency he served as the secretary of state, and succeeded Jefferson as president for two terms. The greatest challenge of his tenure was the War of 1812, which, although there were a number of problems and a humiliating sacking of Washington, DC, by British troops, the nation emerged stronger than before and Madison still popular. Later, he worked alongside Jefferson to establish the University of Virginia, becoming its second rector.

A few years after his death, his wife, Dolley, had to sell Montpelier. It changed hands multiple times before the DuPont family bought it in 1901. Throughout the twentieth century, the DuPonts made alterations to the original mansion. It looked like this only a decade or so ago:

Montpelier 1

While beautiful, it was not the Montpelier of Madison. A complete renovation began in 2000, dedicated to returning it to how it looked when Madison lived there. That renovation is complete now, so this was the first time I was able to visit it as Madison saw it. It has the classic early Virginia architecture once again:

Montpelier

It was a delight to walk through the rooms knowing this was now the genuine Madison home. I wish I could share some photos of the interior, but photography wasn’t allowed inside, as with most historic homes. But I definitely felt the spirit of Madison in the place. Now that it has been returned to its pristine condition, I urge everyone who can to visit. If you have a love for or fascination with America’s early history, you won’t be disappointed.

Constitutional Liberty

Rick Santorum has a concept of freedom that is closer to the Founding Fathers’ definition than anyone else running for president. It’s also a concept that is in line with Biblical presuppositions. In his book It Takes a Family, he lays it out clearly [I urge you to read this rather lengthy quote carefully]:

The freedom talked about at our Constitutional Convention did not mean the village elders’ self-centered, No-Fault Freedom. It wasn’t a freedom that celebrated the individual above society. It wasn’t a freedom that gave men and women blanket permission to check in and out of society whenever they wanted. It wasn’t the freedom to be as selfish as I want to be. It wasn’t even the freedom to be left alone, with no obligations to the people we know and to the people we don’t yet know. The Constitutional Convention’s freedom, America’s traditional freedom—or the better word, as I defined it earlier, liberty—was a selfless freedom, freedom for the sake of something greater or higher than the self. For our founders, this liberty was defined and defended in the context of our Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity. Often, in fact, American liberty meant the freedom to attend to one’s duties—duties to God, to family, and to neighbors.

Santorum then explains that he’s not negating rights that belong to individuals, just that these rights were never intended solely for one’s individual welfare, but the general welfare, or the common good. His greatest concern is that the No-Fault Freedom of what he calls “the village elders” will become dominant, if it hasn’t already:

The multiculturalist village elders deny there is such a thing as “common,” and the relativist elders deny there is such a thing as an absolute “good.” As a result, families trying to live and to raise children as decent citizens suffer. When, in the name of “freedom,” public virtue is sunk so low that families must swim against a toxic tide to raise children to be decent and public-spirited adults, something has gone terribly wrong with our understanding of freedom.

Society, he argues, is not just “an unconnected group of individuals, each pursuing his own idiosyncratic vision of his self-centered good.” That perspective is “an image of society as a pile of sand, each grain unconnected to all the others.” Jesus said something about a house built on sand—it will sink and fracture.

If only voters would look past outward displays of bombast and petty arguments and focus instead on substance. If they did, they would appreciate Santorum a lot more.

Finding the Truth Too Late

When dealing with the religious beliefs of America’s Founding Generation—those who participated in the Revolution and the creation of the Constitution—one must draw a clear distinction between those who were genuine Christians and those who were merely religious in a general sense. As I tell my students incessantly, early America was a society built on a Biblical framework of thinking, even though some of the prominent individuals may not have been what evangelicals call “born again.” Yesterday’s post dealt with Jefferson. Today I’d like to focus on Benjamin Franklin.

At the Continental Congress, Franklin and Jefferson were placed on a committee to try to come up with an official seal for the new United States. Interestingly, here was their proposal:

For both Jefferson and Franklin, apparently nothing would make the point better than comparing America’s situation with the Israelites fleeing from Pharaoh. The seal shows Pharaoh [read: George III] drowning in the Red Sea by the providential hand of God.

Franklin, at the Constitutional Convention, famously made an appeal to the assembled delegates when they seemed to be at cross purposes and the convention was on the verge of failure. At that crucial point, he reminded them of something:

The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: “that God governs in the affairs of men.”And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured … in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this.

These two instances—the devising of the seal and the appeal to look to God—show that Franklin operated within the Biblical milieu that dominated the times. But what of his personal faith in Jesus Christ?

On March 9, 1790, Franklin sent a letter to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale. Stiles had asked about Franklin’s views of Jesus. In his response, the 85-year-old Founder commented,

As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

If you read yesterday’s post on Jefferson, you see a similarity here. Franklin believed that those who wrote the New Testament embellished upon who Jesus was. He mentions dissenters in England, by which he undoubtedly means the Unitarians, who rejected the idea of the Trinity. For me, the saddest part of this letter is that last line. He doesn’t even want to check into the matter further because he expects very soon to know the truth for sure—he knew he was ailing and would not be around much longer. He was right. Franklin died one month after penning this letter.

That’s not the best way to find the truth. By then, it’s too late.