Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On this day 150 years ago, Fort Sumter was fired upon by the South Carolina militia and the Confederate military. The first shot was the opening of the American Civil War and the exclamation point that the American genius for civil discourse and compromise was shattered.

While Americans with strong views point to the founding of their nation in rebellion as an indication that compromise is not being part of the heart of the national character, all that lead up to the Revolutionary War, during it and in the immediate years following it indicates that compromise and civil discourse rests at the heart of the national fabric. The founding of the nation was not simply a gathering of angry men in a town hall as some suggest and bumper stickers proclaim. The First Continental Congress was made of three representatives from each of the Thirteen Colonies, to press their complaints, to come up with a common plan and argument against the king and if possible achieve an equitable settlement, a compromise, with the crown.

For both the first and second Continental Congress, representatives were selected not for being passionate yet rational men. Some colonies selected representatives with the specific mandate not to force rebellion. The dialogue was passionate, at times heated and frustrating, but it was civil and above all it was designed to work towards common ground between them. Seeking common ground involved compromise. Even when war with the crown started, twice congressional representatives meet with representatives of the crown dispatched to help resolve the crisis. In each case the congressional representatives were empowered to dialogue and to seek compromise with the crown but in both cases quickly discovered that the other party was not empowered to compromise but to persuade the Americans to capitulate to the will of the crown.

When the government system was established, they designed a system to facilitate civil discourse and compromise. Three branches of government (Executive, Court and Legislative) were to be co-equal, not just as part of a check and balance process but as a compromise process. Congress was intentionally designed so that the Senate would have two representatives from each state regardless of the state’s population and the House seats would be allocated by population. The House was designed to allow states with the greatest populations to have stronger voices in the shaping of bills than those with smaller populations. The Senate was designed to allow the state with smallest populations to have equal voice and say as the state with the largest population. The House and the Senate process was designed to facilitate compromise, so that the powerful do not overwhelm the weakest.

The President is not to be an imperial presidency. It is to be provide global leadership, advocating for the national good of the citizenry, not advocating for one party over another, regionalism or corporate causes. Again, civil discourse and compromise for the national good is part of the design.

In the years following the Revolutionary War, the first amendments are results of compromising, balancing the needs and issues in one section of the country with those in another. Since the process of amending the Constitution is a compromise process while seeking a stronger collective good.

The Civil War is a prime example of what happens when civil discourse and compromise break down and are taken over by strongly held opinions, and those opinions are held with winner take all attitudes. None of us are poorer when we do not compromise and neglect to be engaged in civil discourse. Today, compromise and civil discourse, as well as national statesmen, are in short supply, and that is a national shame.

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