In May 1787, 55 delegates — representation from every American state — converged on Philadelphia, meeting in the statehouse with the single purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation.
The six-year-old Articles had been agreed upon by the 13 states in the midst of the Revolutionary War, establishing a central government. But the central government was weak; it consisted only of Congress, each state having one vote, and there was no other branch of government — no executive branch, no judiciary branch. Congress had no authority to regulate trade or to levy taxes.
With George Washington elected to preside over the convention, things got underway on May 25, 1787. As the hot summer of 1787 unfolded, the 55 delegates battled and bickered. But, ultimately, they compromised. And they revealed the Constitution of the United States.
Among the arguments were how to elect members of Congress. Delegates from Virginia — including James Madison — had drafted a plan that laid out the three separate branches of government, with the legislative branch having two houses — one of which would be elected by the people, the second of which would be appointed by the first house.
In the weeks ahead, the delegates battled over how many representatives each state should have. The Articles of Confederation had dictated that each state have one vote, which thrilled the smaller states with less population. They believed their rights would be impeded if they had less of a voice in government than the more populated states. David Brearley, who represented New Jersey, said that small states, such as his own, “will be obliged to throw themselves constantly into the scale of some large one in order to have any weight at all.” But the large states argued it was not fair to have representation determined by anything other than population. Pennsylvania’s James Wilson declared of New Jersey having equal representation to his state: “I say no! It is unjust.”
The delegates from Connecticut proposed a compromise, under which the first branch — later to be known as the House of Representatives — would be determined by the number of free inhabitants of each state, while the second branch — the Senate — would provide one vote for each state.
As June turned to July and the debate grew even more heated, Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton, saying that conditions in Philadelphia were “in a worse train than ever; you will find but little ground on which the hope of a good establishment, can be formed. In a word, I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.”
But six days later, the delegates agreed to the Connecticut compromise: representation in the House of Representatives would be chosen by the people, with each state’s representatives based on the state’s total white population, plus three-fifths of its slave population: one representative for every 40,000 inhabitants. The Senate, meanwhile, would consist of two representatives from each state, chosen by that state’s legislature.
The small states were understandably ecstatic. The large states, not so much. But the issue was settled, and the convention could proceed.
As July rolled along, the delegates quickly agreed that a national executive should be in place, independent of the Congress. Thus, the executive branch was created. It was easily agreed that the executive would be called president, and that he would have veto power over Congress — so long as Congress could override the veto.
What wasn’t easy to decide: how the president should be elected. Some delegates believed he should be elected by the people. Others believed he should be appointed by the Congress. After more than 60 votes, delegates reached a compromise: voters in each state would vote for two people, one of which could not be an inhabitant of that state. The person receiving the most votes would become president, but if no candidate received a majority of votes, the House of Representatives would choose the candidate from the top five.
The next issue was slavery. The Southern states insisted that Congress be banned from taxing exports, and prohibited from banning the importation of slaves. But many Northern delegates objected to slavery, with Luther Martin (Maryland) saying that slavery is “inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character,” and George Mason (Virginia) calling slaveowners “petty tyrants.”
However, those like Martin and Mason and Gouverneur Morris (Pennsylvania), who called slavery a “nefarious institution,” realized that their opposition to slavery would make unity impossible and they compromised with the Southern states: agreeing that Congress could not tax exports, and that no law could be passed to ban the slave trade until 1808.
On September 17, 1787, delegates met to sign the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin spoke of the compromises that had been reached, saying the Constitution may not be perfect, but, “I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it . . . to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
Of the 44 delegates present, 41 signed the Constitution. With that done, the delegates retired to a nearby tavern to eat, drink and celebrate. And Benjamin Rush wrote, “Tis done. We have become a nation.”
It was a long summer in Philadelphia. Tough decisions were made. Concessions were made by everyone, with folks giving up things they felt strongly about in the spirit of unity that would move America forward. “The bundle of compromises,” as the Constitution was later termed, included compromises by representatives of large states and small states on issues of representation; compromises by representatives of Northern States and Southern States on the issue of slavery; compromises by representatives who believed in true democracy and who were skeptical of it on issues of elections.
Fast-forward 230 years. Look at what we’ve become. Now imagine if Madison, Mason, Franklin, Washington and the rest of the delegates who assembled in Philadelphia on those stuffy summer afternoons had the same combative, my-way-or-no-way partisan attitudes of today’s politicians.
What if, in 1787, delegates who disagreed had refused to gather at the bargaining table had instead said, “Shut ‘er down.”
What would’ve become of this fledgling republic?
The answer: It likely would’ve ceased to exist. By 1787, multiple issues had arisen. States were bickering with one another — imposing tariffs on one another and quarreling over borders. The federal government was too weak to do anything about it. Moreover, Great Britain was refusing to honor the Treaty of Paris, which had ended the Revolutionary War, because America was not paying back prewar debts that had been promised.
The Articles of Confederation had worked, temporarily, but a more powerful central government was needed — one with the authority to make laws and enforce those laws, to levy taxes and collect those taxes, and to negotiate in the states’ best interests. Without that federal government that was designed by the Constitution, the 13 states would have soon fallen into war with one another until rule was established through force or tyranny. Democracy wouldn’t have existed. The lasting implications are startling to think through.
Fortunately, those early statesmen realized the importance of compromise, of give and take for the sake of governing a diverse people that included a wide representation of socioeconomics, politics and religion. In 1787, Americans were spread far and wide, from the congregated early urban areas to the sparsely settled frontier. Through compromise, a meshing of ideas and values, the 13 states, newly independent, became the United States of America.
It makes you wonder how Washington and Madison and the rest would’ve handled the issues of health care and border walls. Through compromise? Or stubborn, unrelenting partisanship?
Sadly, the values that built America are no longer in play among those elected to carry our beliefs to the nation’s capital. The spirit of compromise has been forgotten.
Not that our nation’s government hasn’t been divided throughout its history. Partisan politics have long been the norm in Washington, and were the norm in Philadelphia before that. Government shutdowns haven’t been uncommon; since 1980, there have been 10 of them.
But shutdowns — and threats of shutdowns — are becoming more common. Prior to 1990, there had never been a government shutdown involving federal employee furloughs that had lasted longer than a day. Two of the three longest shutdowns have occurred in the last six years. The Obamacare-prompted shutdown of 2013 lasted 16 days. The border wall shutdown is at 26 days and counting — surpassing the 1995-1996 shutdown of 21 days as America’s longest-ever.
And neither side is willing to budge an inch.
And because our elected officials are merely a reflection of their constituents, Americans love to take sides. A Washington Post-ABC News poll, released last weekend, found that 53 percent of respondents blame President Trump and Republicans for the shutdown. Another 29 percent blame congressional Democrats for the shutdown. Only 13 percent say both sides are equally at fault.
Count me among the 13 percent. I have political views just like anyone else; principles that guide my opinions on most major issues. But I have always refused to be bound by partisanship. I’m going to call out my elected officials when they’re in the wrong, regardless of their party affiliation.
From where I stand, both sides are equally at fault. Because neither is interested in compromise.
President Trump can’t possibly refuse ownership of the shutdown, not after he sat in a meeting with leading Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer in December, with news cameras present, and said, “If we don’t get what we want . . . I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”
Nor can the Democrats refuse ownership of the shutdown, not when the president and key Republicans meet at the White House for negotiations without a single Democrat present — despite an invitation being extended to the Democrats.
Trump is refusing to consider anything but funding for his wall, despite Democrats having enough votes in the House of Representatives to block that funding, because he doesn’t want to be seen as failing to deliver on his chief campaign promise.
Democrats are refusing to consider a spending bill that includes funding for the president’s wall, despite themselves favoring a wall and increased border security just a few short years ago, because they want to undermine the president.
And around and around we go, with hundreds of thousands of federal workers either furloughed or working without pay, while millions more Americans are either directly or indirectly impacted. Trump has said the shutdown might last months or even years. He seems to be okay with that. So do Democrats.
Trump has been eager for this fight. He’s taken to Twitter time and again to launch verbal grenades at Schumer and Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. He has flatly refused to accept anything less than funding for the wall.
Pelosi, too, has been eager for the fight. She prided herself on toppling the agenda of President George W. Bush after his re-election in 2004. At the time, Bush’s approval rating was near 60 percent and he sought to reform Social Security — an issue that, not unlike the border wall, congressional Democrats supported before they turned against it to stand against a Republican president.
This past November, Pelosi reflected back on that time in an interview with the New York Times. She proudly recalled that “the first thing we had to do . . . was take the president’s numbers down. Bush was 57 percent in early 2005. His numbers came down to 38 in the fall.”
For Pelosi, opposition to Social Security reform in 2005 was all about crippling the Bush presidency.
A decade and a half later, Pelosi’s opposition to the border wall is all about crippling the Trump presidency.
With Pelosi, as with Trump, there is no spirit of compromise. There’s merely the malice of partisanship; a desire to see a political opponent — and his party — fail.
Much has been written about Trump’s conduct that is unbecoming of the Oval Office, and much of it is true. But Pelosi’s conduct is unbecoming of a congressional leader. When the mainstream media takes Trump to task for his sophomoric comments about his rivals, they gloss over statements from Pelosi, such as when she questioned Trump’s manhood in the aftermath of the aforementioned meeting in December. Or, more recently, when she said of furloughed federal employees last week, “(Trump) thinks maybe they could just ask their father for more money. But they can’t,” a gutter shot at Trump using his father’s wealth to help build his business empire.
When you boil down to the crux of the matter, this government shutdown isn’t about border security — not really. It’s about a president intent on delivering on a promise that he sees as important to his base, and congressional opposition intent on throwing obstacles in the president’s path because that’s what their base wants. It’s all about the 2020 election, and elections beyond that.
Which side will win in the battle to score points with the electorate? Only time will tell. History, and logistics, say Democrats will win. But the game is close enough for Republicans to pull an upset. There is a clear loser, though: the American people.
But at least our forefathers didn’t act like the petulant children that our modern leaders are acting like. If they had’ve, only the grace of God would’ve saved this republic.