Over the past few years, Americans have been noticeably drawn to the era of our Founders. The acclaimed HBO miniseries "John Adams" followed David McCullough’s bestselling books, "John Adams" and "1776." Walter Isaacson profiled Franklin; Ron Chernow, Hamilton; and Joseph Ellis presented Washington, Jefferson, and the generation of "Founding Brothers."
Students of historiography – the writing of history – note that history books reflect the time in which they are written. There is a reason Americans are fascinated by the Founders today.
So it is worth asking, why the great interest with our Founding Fathers, and why now?
Perhaps it is that Americans find in our Founders qualities so starkly absent in our own generation of political leaders. While our young nation’s first leaders were imperfect, they were espoused virtue, duty, civility, and sacrifice. They represented 13 unique states – each considered their home countries – with diverse interests and passions.
Coastal towns preferred commerce while western and southern promoted agriculture. Populous states like Virginia faced small states like Rhode Island. Pennsylvanian Quakers opposed Carolinan slaveowners; Anglophiles feared Francophiles; and Anti-Federalists disputed Federalists.
And yet they found a way to get things done – through compromise.
The first week of July is a hallowed one for Americans. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to separate from Great Britain, signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on the July 4. Twelve years later, on July 2, 1788, the Constitution – after a long year of debate – was ratified, becoming the law of the land.
Both the Continental Congress and the Convention that preceded ratification and crafted that exceptional document say a lot about the virtues of the Founders. And there are lessons to draw as we contrast that generation of leaders with today’s less able and certainly less fraternal representatives in Congress.
They identified a crisis and committed to act. The nation’s first governing document, the Articles of Confederation, was almost uniformly seen as a failure by 1786, when James Madison proposed they be revised. When in May, 1787, he called for a "Grand Convention" to rewrite a constitution, all states but one sent delegates.
They worked toward a common goal. The Articles of Confederation created a hopelessly weak central government. It had no authority to tax, and therefore had to request money from the states. The original Congress also had no authority to raise an army. But states were often unwilling to volunteer funds or troops because of disproportional representation (big states and small states each had one vote). There was also no chief executive. The government, as Washington put it, was "little more than the shadow without the substance."
While the fifty-five delegates at the Constitutional Convention differed on how to remedy the failures of Articles, they almost all agreed on goals: Stronger central government, an executive branch and fairer representation.
They deliberated in private. James Madison understood that no comprehensive reform would be agreed-upon at the Convention without compromise on several issues. But he knew that transparency would undermine compromise: Delegates would be reluctant to express their views freely, or to suggest ideas not fully thought-out, knowing their views would be recorded and publicized. So he posted armed sentries outside the Philadelphia hall’s doors and held the entire convention in secrecy.
They understood the value of consensus. Adams and Franklin understood that the July 2, 1776, vote to declare independence from Great Britain would carry less weight were the vote anything less than unanimous. Twelve of the thirteen colonies’ delegations voted to separate with Britain (New York, which abstained, later affirmed its support). At the Philadelphia convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin implored each delegate to present a united front, "and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument." Though differences remained within state delegations, each of the 12 participating states voted "aye" for the new constitution.
They compromised. Each delegate settled for a document less than perfect, but they agreed, as one delegate put it, in the "spirit of mutual concession." Franklin concluded before the final vote, "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others."
The Constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights satisfied no one entirely, but everyone sufficiently. Yet this "Great Compromise" has stood for 221 years as the most exceptional governing document in the modern world.
The Founders were men of principle who built coalitions. In contrast to today’s conventional partisans, trapped by ideological inflexibility and often hostage to special interests, America’s first leaders understood that principle and compromise are not always mutually exclusive.
It was a tradition that extended for much of our nation’s history. The great legislators of the 19th century – men like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster – won their reputations crafting compromises that held the held the young nation together: the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850.
The crises our nation faces today – energy, health care, immigration, entitlements, indebtedness and more – will require statesmen in Washington willing to set aside partisan shackles and personal gain, identify common objectives and work to achieve them with the greatest degree of unanimity possible, yet in a "spirit of mutual concession." Great legislation cannot happen with fifty plus one, debated before C-SPAN’s prying eyes, and without leaders willing to embrace a concept once widely-accepted, now frequently rejected, by America’s political class: Compromise.
Jim Burkee, an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin, is a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress in Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District. He is challenging incumbent F. James Sensenbrenner for the seat.