Ethics & Public Policy Center

Compromise and the American Constitution

Published in Commentary Magazine on September 30, 2013



In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery. And so compromises were made in terms of representation (the South wanted slaves counted as full persons in order to increase their representation in Congress; eventually slaves were considered three-fifths of a person); in terms of delaying the prohibition on the importation of slaves (until the year 1808); and in dealing with escaped slaves (those who fled to non-slave states would be returned to their masters if caught).

Slavery was a moral obscenity–but in the words of Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the more enlightened founders hoped is that the Constitution would put in place the elements to end slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”

In her splendid book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

I understand that among conservatives these days the idea of compromise is out of favor. And for understandable reasons: In Barack Obama the right is facing an unusually rigid and dogmatic individual, one who is himself averse to compromise and is intentionally polarizing. (Polarizing the electorate turned out to be his only ticket to reelection.)

But perhaps because compromise as a concept is so unpopular these days–at least if my recent correspondence and conversations with those on the right is any indication–it is important that those of us who are conservative remind ourselves of its virtues. To point out that compromise is not always synonymous with weakness. That our problems, as significant as they are, pale in comparison to what the founders faced. And that compromise still belongs, in the words of Rauch, in the “constitutional pantheon.” Even the Obama presidency, as frustrating as it might be, cannot undo the marvelous handiwork and enduring insights of James Madison.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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