SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
It’s almost Independence Day, and I’ve been thinking about how the kind of compromise necessary to form our country seems to have become a foreign idea in modern times.
We think of our Founding Fathers as standing united, all in agreement as they faced the superpower of Great Britain and did what no colony had ever done before, in the face of overpowering might. But they weren’t united at all; in fact, only about a third of the people in the Thirteen Colonies were in favor of independence. Another third was against it, and the last third just didn’t give a hoot.
The political leanings of the average American haven’t changed all that much. But back then people managed to get problems solved, at least eventually, while these days they seem to fester on forever.
Not that they wanted to compromise, back then. Our Founding Fathers were all white males, mostly Christian, all of European stock – and yet they still couldn’t agree on anything. John Adams hated the childish arguing so much that he actually said, “I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more – is a congress.”
(He also said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” I’m not certain Adams wasn’t a prophet.)
Yet they could compromise, even when the compromise just put off the problem until later. For instance, many were rabidly anti-slavery, including Thomas Jefferson. Even though he himself owned slaves, he knew it was wrong. Adams, again hinting at his skill as a prophet, said, “"Mark me, (Benjamin) Franklin. If we give in on this issue, there will be trouble one hundred years hence. Posterity will never forgive us." (Just under a century later, the Civil War broke out.)
But the Southern delegates wouldn’t agree to condemn slavery and so wreck their economy; that passage had to be taken out of the Declaration of Independence, or the United States would be stillborn. As a compromise it became a state’s rights issue, with the Northern states banning the institution.
Eleven years later the issue arose again as the Constitution was being written. The South wanted slaves counted for the purpose of appropriating congressional representation, but how could they do that while claiming blacks weren’t people at all? The compromise: Slaves were each counted as three-fifths of a person.
Well, our original Constitution didn’t give consideration to anyone who wasn’t a white male, did it? Not women, not blacks, certainly not those savage indians. That was in keeping with other governments of the day. Still, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights provided a start, and it guaranteed some basic rights that most countries of the time didn’t consider rights at all. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Assembly. Freedom to own your own weapon, be tried by your own peers, express your opinion … the right to be the government, rather than be controlled by the government. Some of those freedoms are being eroded now, but that’s happened at other times in our history, and so far we’ve always snapped back before things went too far.
The Constitution also supplied a way to be amended, to change with the times to a degree. It can’t be done easily – that way lays disaster. But over time we’ve corrected many of our mistakes: abolished slavery, given the right to vote to women and minorities, and repealed Prohibition. (Well, some people think that Prohibition thing was a really big deal.)
Sometimes we backslide, as with the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. But then, sometimes every country backslides. We have bad people, just like any place, but unlike many of them we let the bad people demonstrate their idiocy in various constitutionally protected ways. Maybe some countries are more open than ours, but in general we expose our warts for all to see. Maybe our government doesn’t provide as much to our citizens as other countries, but many nations supply a lot less; and many don’t give their citizens the rights and responsibility to strive for their own success. No matter how you stand on gay rights, the very fact that we’re debating it in public puts us head and shoulders above much of the rest of the world.
Maybe various shady people try to wedge their way into our elections, but when we have a nail biter we don’t riot in the street or watch while the sitting government declares itself the winner without opposition. We don’t try to wall our citizens off from the rest of the world like North Korea, suppress the free flow of information like China, or send the army in to use weapons of mass destruction against our own citizens, like Saddam Hussein did. We don’t shut down all but the state religion. We don’t ban opposition parties. We don’t stone women to death for exposing their faces.
For all the anti-military rhetoric, when the United States military goes afield it’s usually to do something that no nation in the world ever considered before we came along: to set other people free. The American citizen doesn’t have our own soldiers barging into our homes to arrest us, or shoot us down. The Armed Forces remain under the direction of a civilian Commander in Chief, and every four years, if we don’t like how that person is handling things, we can throw him out.
That’s remarkable. Think back to 1776, when a group of men pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to form a new nation, something no colony had ever done. It was the rare country back then that wasn’t ruled by some sort of dictator, and yet they threw their hopes on this strange, messy, wonderful idea of a republic, a government elected by the people.
There were lots of compromises, and it’s never been perfect. But – impossibly, against all odds – it worked. And, if given its head and allowed to function as intended by the Constitutional framers, it still works.
Maybe the moaners and naysayers could take a little time, once a day or so, and remember what a great country this really is, and how they should be thankful for having the freedom to moan and naysay.
Call it a compromise.