Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Constitution? Let’s Compromise

September 17, 2012 by Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson


Our nation’s Constitution was forged here in Philadelphia 225 years ago this month. But even in this city of brotherly love, disharmony reigned during much of the time in making it.

Not only on the notorious controversies about the representation of the states and the role of slavery, but on seemingly minor matters of ceremony. When Ben Franklin, the wise grandsire of the American Revolution, called for a chaplain to deliver a prayer of reconciliation on the day of a decisive vote, Alexander Hamilton vehemently objected, purportedly claiming there was no reason ‘to call in foreign aid.’

Contemporary critics of our current day Congress may be forgiven for thinking that nothing less than divine intervention will overcome its disharmony and dysfunction. Yet if our Congressional leaders would candidly reflect on the founding and our subsequent history, they would find self-help readily at hand. It lies in the fine, honorable, and deeply American art of compromise.

Franklin himself preached its virtues repeatedly during the long hot summer of the Constitutional Convention. He advised his colleagues: “When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint,” he told members of the convention. “In like manner, both sides must part with some of their demands.” Ronald Reagan--a master at the art--said he learned its value while negotiating labor contracts as president of the Screen Actors' Guild. And Lyndon Johnson declared himself resolutely in favor, calling it essential "for the sake of nothing less than stability."

Compromise is the missing elixir of effective governance, the part of American politics that seems to have eloped with civility, leaving intransigence and ineffectiveness in its stead. It's something we need back, and a more compromising mindset among more leaders in Congress is key to its return. The prospect of compromise offers the greatest and most time-tested political means for moving this country forward. True, compromise is difficult and oftentimes unpleasant. Yet leading a democracy without compromising is impossible.

Anyone who doubts either the difficulty or the necessity of compromise in American politics today need only recall the white-hot politics of the summer of 2011 in Washington, when a sharply divided Congress confronted the need to raise the government debt limit. Compromise was the only way to avoid further inflaming the financial crisis and risking an unprecedented U.S. default on its debt. After August 3 the government would no longer be able to pay all its bills. With the deadline nearing, many observers doubted that any solution could be found.

Only at the last moment—on the evening of July 31—was President Barack Obama able to announce that leaders in both the House and the Senate had reached an agreement. Congress forged a classic compromise, in which each side both gained and gave up things they wanted. But the spirit of compromise was halfhearted and short lived. Congress failed to agree on any long-term solution and instead kicked the can of deficit reduction down the road, so the nation now faces the fiscal cliff at the end of this year, less than two months after the election.

The arc of American history is long, and if it bends towards justice it moves in that direction mainly through the art of compromise. Election season, however, marks the nadir of compromise. Each party and every candidate make their case in the most uncompromising terms to save the country from a litany of wrongs wrought by the other side. But after the votes are counted and the dust has settled, what America needs, and what democratic citizens have every right to expect, is the give-and-take of effective governance.

Yes, elections are a time for fiery oratory and passionate debate. But they are for a season, and each season must pass. After Election Day must come the time for our leaders to demonstrate true political leadership and return to the shared task of building the great table of American freedom and prosperity. Some of each party’s planks will have to be shaved. The joints will have to fit. Compromise is the time-tested tool by which to do it.

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, is a member of the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center. Dennis Thompson is the Alfred North Whitehead Professor of Political Science at Harvard University. They are the co-authors of The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It, published by Princeton University Press.

Sign up for our email newsletter