In the summer of 1787, 55 delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies (all except Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia to revise the weak Articles of Confederation under which the colonies had operated during the Revolution. It was immediately obvious that the Articles of Confederation needed to be completely replaced with a new Constitution.
But the colonies were deeply divided between large and small states, commercial versus agrarian interests, states' rights versus strong central government, and northern versus southern states over the issue of slavery. The effort probably would not have succeeded without the prestige of George Washington, who agreed to preside over the convention, and the wit and wisdom of elder statesman Benjamin Franklin. Only by negotiating compromise after compromise, largely brokered by James Madison, were these disagreements bridged (all except slavery, which was wisely postponed to another time).
Today there are many who revere the Constitution to the extreme of biblical infallibility. But the framers obviously did not see it that way. They provided that it would be a living document subject to future Supreme Court interpretation, and probably needing revisions or additions from time to time as conditions change, which is why they included a provision for amendments.
The Constitution was by no means popular when it was presented to the States for ratification, largely because it lacked any provision for protecting people from tyranny by their own government, which was the issue over which the Revolution had been fought. It was only on the promise of a Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) that the Constitution was ratified by the required nine states (some by narrow margins) and took effect in 1789. The Bill of Rights was ratified and became effective in 1791. (Oddly, Massachusetts, Georgia and Connecticut did not ratify it until 1939.)
The Constitution also failed to anticipate the rise of political parties, which was addressed in 1804 by an amendment changing how the vice-president is elected. The Civil War produced three amendments freeing the slaves and granting them citizenship and voting rights. In 1913, amendments authorized an income tax, and changed the method of electing Senators from the State Legislatures to direct public vote. Other amendments in 1920 and 1971 expanded voting rights to women and to those aged 18-20. An amendment in 1951 limited presidents to two terms. And the there was the ridiculous prohibition amendment of 1919, which was repealed in 1933. The most recent amendment, regarding authorization of Congressional pay, proposed in 1789, was not ratified until 1992.
The Constitution was not only created by compromise, it was constructed to make compromise and respect for differing opinions essential to the functioning of the government it formed. At no time was this more tested than in the decades preceding the Civil War. Left unresolved in the Constitution, the slavery issue came to a head in 1820 and again in 1850. In both cases the country was evenly divided between pro-slavery and anti-slavery states, 11-11 in 1820, and 15-15 in 1850, and the pro-slavery states feared that admission of new anti-slavery states would break the ties.
On both occasions, Henry Clay, a Virginia Senator (and three times a presidential candidate), engineered a compromise. The 1820 compromise, known as the Missouri compromise, allowed Missouri to come in as a slave state to balance the pending admission of Maine. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state by removing the prohibition of slavery in the Utah and New Mexico territories. These compromises deferred the final resolution of the slavery issue until the Civil War, nearly 75 years after the Constitutional Convention had avoided the issue, due to the efforts of Clay, the "Great Compromiser". But over the next ten years, tensions mounted to such a point that in 1856 a northern Senator was caned into unconsciousness by a southern Congressman. There were no further compromises.
In recent years we have witnessed increasing dissension and intransigence deadlock Congress on issue after issue, rendering it ineffective. It hasn't yet reached the point of physical violence, but there is a disturbing faction that has taken an oath to under no circumstances ever vote for any increase in taxes, i.e., no compromises. Anyone who takes such an oath should be barred from serving in Congress, because that would violate their oath to uphold the Constitution. Our Constitution was created by compromise, and compromise is essential to the functioning of the form of government the framers envisioned.
- "As I See It" appears on the first and third Thursdays of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at email@example.com.