While in Boston I picked up a book titled, “Signing Their Rights Away; the Fame & Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the United States Constitution” by Denise Kiernan & Joseph D’Agnese.
Throw away the history textbooks. This is the stuff we all should read.
The book gives a mini-bio of each of the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution. It is fascinating reading, full of the kind of foibles and personal drama never revealed in textbooks.
Almost as intriguing as the biographies is the introduction, in which the truth about the situation of our nation after the Revolution is put forth in stark language. We were in trouble.
“Most believe that the patriots defeated the British, as though in a football game, and then Americans lived happily ever after in blissful democracy.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When the war ended in 1783, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. This fairly flimsy compact provided for a one-house Congress, one vote per state, and very little else. True, this Congress had a president, but he didn’t derive his power from the people, and he was an intentionally weak figurehead. After all, the last thing the founding fathers wanted was another king.
Within two years, the United States was on the verge of political collapse….Clearly something had to be done or the nation wouldn’t live long enough to celebrate its’ eleventh birthday. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and a host of other bigwigs proposed a “grand convention” at which delegates would gather to revise, debate, and expand the Articles of Confederation. Seventy four delegates were chosen by their respective states; only fifty-five answered the call, and many of those with skepticism. Patrick Henry, the famed Virginia rebel, refused to attend, complaining that he “smelt a rat.” Rhode Island sent no representatives at all.
In May of 1787, the willing participants journeyed to the very same Philadelphia building where the Declaration of Independence had been signed. True, these men had once banded together to fight as brothers against a common enemy, but now they were deeply distrustful of one another… Every delegate arrived wanting something — but few were willing to sacrifice anything. In such a contentious environment, reaching compromise would be tough. More than a dozen delegates quit and went home before the convention’s end.
In the end, these  men prioritized the welfare of their country over politics or personal advancement. They fought with great conviction — but they eventually came to understand that no single delegate could walk away with all the marbles. They agreed to compromise for the greater good.”
What were the things about which the delegates “fought with great conviction”? The most important was the argument over how the states would be represented in the government. There were two main proposals; The Virginia Plan, favored by larger more populous states, in which each state would have representation based on population. This would obviously give more power to the bigger states. Then there was the New Jersey Plan, favored by smaller states. This plan was the “one vote, one state” plan, giving everyone an equal say regardless of population or area.
Here are Kiernan and D’Agnese again:
“It’s likely the entire convention might have ended in failure if shoemaker-turned-statesman Roger Sherman hadn’t proposed what historians now call the Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise). His solution: The House of Representatives would have proportional representation based on population, and the Senate would consist of two senators from each state. This system is still in use today.”
It’s not that difficult to understand; but for this compromise, our country might never have existed. If each delegate hadn’t been willing to give up something they wanted, begrudgingly or not, I would not be writing this to you today 200+ years later.
So when someone like Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party Republican who challenged long time Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar and beat him, says that the problem in Washington is too much compromise, I cringe. This is Mourdock, “I’ve said it many times; This is a historic time, and the most powerful people in both parties are so opposed to one another that one side simply has to win out over the other.”
Really? Have you, Mr. Mourdock, read anything about that somewhat historic time when our Constitution was first drafted? Do you think todays’ leaders dislike each other any more than those men did?
And just in case he was a little vague in that last quote, Mourdock went on record with Fox news after his primary victory by saying “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
If Richard Mourdock had been on hand at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia that summer of 1787, perhaps he would have been among the delegates who got up and walked out; or maybe those who never showed at all. He certainly would not have been among the signers. Those men, the men we remember (and some of whom we don’t), with all their dislike of each other, their imperfections and their vanities, are the ones who recognized that compromise was (is) the only road to success.
236 years later we should be happy that they did.