Monday, March 2, 2015

Did the Founding Fathers believe in compromise? (Answer: Only partially)



I was once in an argument with a liberal guy who claimed that Republicans should compromise because "the Founding Fathers agreed with compromise" (or some wordage to that effect), telling me to "Read the Federalist Papers" (his exact words) to find evidence that the Founding Fathers agreed with it. This was among the biggest blunders that my debate opponents have ever made; because I have read the Federalist Papers from cover to cover, and I was able to produce the quotes that debunked his interpretation.


This is a common misconception about the Founding Fathers; and like many misconceptions, there is a kernel of truth in it: there were a number of compromises at the Constitutional Convention. But these compromises were only done with the greatest reluctance, and many of them were willing to work against the Constitution unless they got everything they wanted. Anyone who's really studied what happened at the Convention knows that these men only compromised as a last resort, when they lacked the power to get all they desired, and had to choose between getting some of what they wanted or none of it.

To help debunk this myth, I will give the quotes from the Federalist Papers that I gave to this liberal guy; and follow them with a paraphrase of the liberal guy's response to them, which amounted to an admission of defeat.




Alexander Hamilton

The first Federalist Papers quote, from Alexander Hamilton: "If a pertinacious majority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated." (Source: Federalist No. 22) Note he says it is happy when such compromises can take place, for upon some things things will not admit of accommodation. In other circumstances, he refers to compromises as "contemptible compromises of the public good." This does not seem like an unlimited endorsement of compromise.


James Madison

Another relevant Federalist Papers quote, from James Madison: "We may well suppose that neither side would entirely yield to the other, and consequently that the struggle could be terminated only by compromise. It is extremely probable, also, that after the ratio of representation had been adjusted, this very compromise must have produced a fresh struggle between the same parties, to give such a turn to the organization of the government, and to the distribution of its powers, as would increase the importance of the branches, in forming which they had respectively obtained the greatest share of influence." (Source: Federalist No. 37) So even when "neither side would entirely yield to the other, and consequently that the struggle could be terminated only by compromise," they find it "extremely probable" that "this very compromise must have produced a fresh struggle between the same parties." Thus the struggle would not be terminated by compromise, but produced afresh.


Alexander Hamilton

Another relevant Federalist Papers quote (Hamilton again): "The choice which may at any time happen to be made under such circumstances, will of course be the result either of a victory gained by one party over the other, or of a compromise between the two parties. In either case, the intrinsic merit of the candidate will be too often out of sight." (Source: Federalist No. 76) So a "compromise between the parties" causes the "intrinsic merit of the candidate" to be "too often out of sight." This does not seem like an endorsement of compromise in any degree.

Another relevant Federalist Papers quote (Hamilton): "The compacts which are to embrace thirteen distinct States in a common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?" (Source: Federalist No. 85) So perfection cannot be expected to spring from "a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations." Granted, perfection cannot be expected in any circumstances, but this does not seem like an unlimited endorsement of compromise.


Original copy of U.S. Constitution

Another relevant Federalist Papers quote (Hamilton): "But every amendment to the Constitution, if once established, would be a single proposition, and might be brought forward singly. There would then be no necessity for management or compromise, in relation to any other point no giving nor taking. The will of the requisite number would at once bring the matter to a decisive issue." (Source: Federalist No. 85) Hence the "necessity for management and compromise" is mentioned as a barrier to "at once bring[ing] the matter to a decisive issue." This does not seem like an endorsement of compromise.


Title page from first printing of Federalist Papers

Thus, it is reasonable to believe that the Federalist Papers did not give an unlimited endorsement of compromise. The Federalist Papers always speak of compromise in a negative sense, except in the first quote I gave, in which it is said to be happy when such compromises can take place, for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation - thus limiting the praise of compromise to these particular circumstances. There is no unlimited endorsement of compromise in the Federalist Papers. That is a myth that has surrounded the document from the beginning. Compromise should be limited to the circumstances they have described.

So now to the liberal guy's response to these quotes: "Wow, Jeffrey, I'm impressed! It's hard to believe that someone would do all that research just to address a comment on a blog ... I look forward to debating with you on other issues." (I cannot recall his exact words, but I do know this is pretty close.) This is among the closest things I've had to an admission of defeat from my debating opponents. I was much amused by it. This is one of the times where my reading of the lengthy Federalist Papers actually paid off.

So what are the "Federalist Papers," anyway?

Did the Founding Fathers oppose political parties? (Actually, no ... )


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