Political Compromise: The Original, Orginalist Thinking

Posted on July 19, 2011


We hear a lot about what the Founders of our nation intended. Politicians chastise judges with whom they disagree for not following the requisite “originalist intent.” Elected judges campaign for office by swearing they will follow the intent of the founders. Supreme Court Justices (past and present), legal scholars and TV pundits write books about Constitutional originalism.

So whatever happened to the Originalists’ practice of political compromise. It was alive and well until a few years ago.

The U.S. Constitution was borne out of political compromise.

Large states wanted representation based on population (proportional representation). Small states demanded equal representation.

Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, in effort to persuade both sides to compromise on their steadfast positions, delivered a speech that led to a resolve of the impasse. Ben used this analogy to make his point that compromise is not a sign of weakness:

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. In like manner here, both sides must part with some of their demands.

Today, we have a bicameral legislative body—A House of Representatives where representation is proportional and a Senate where representation is equal.

Thomas Jefferson

It’s sad that we no longer elect political leaders of the caliber of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison. Leaders who had differing viewpoints and different ideas about how to achieve certain goals. Yet, they knew that compromise was sometimes necessary to achieve the best outcome for the country as a whole.

Yes, there was a time of ardent partisanship that emerged during the second term of President Washington. Several of the most significant Founders were opposed to political parties (George Washington, John Adams).

But we survived as a nation because compromise still happened. And laws that were enacted for a temporary duration (the atrocious Alien & Sedition Acts of 1789, for example) were allowed to expire. Such laws weren’t used as a negotiating tactic for squeezing blood from a turnip.

In 1787, we had politicians who saw the need to compromise for the future of the Republic.

Today we have politicians who pledge allegiance to Grover Norquist.