An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: This Nation was built on COMPROMISE

Aug 3, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, this great country of ours was established by a number of men (and women) who put the country before their own political agendas. What were some of the earliest compromises, for example in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution?

It can be said that the nation itself was born of compromise. When the Second Continental Congress met in May of 1775 and had to decide what to do about the violence that had taken place in Massachusetts in April, some wanted to proclaim independence while others sought reconciliation with the British. The members decided to steer a middle course, resisting the British militarily while still trying to peacefully resolve our differences. The Declaration of Independence also reflected compromise, and the Constitution could never have been adopted if the authors had not been willing to give as well as take.

  1. Our first president- was he known for his diplomatic skills, or did he often compromise also?

George Washington was extremely adept at the art of compromise. Some of his advisors, like Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government, while others (notably Thomas Jefferson) argued for a limited federal power. Washington helped chart a middle course that kept our fledgling nation together at a critical time.

  1. The first major compromise was the Missouri Compromise- what can you tell us about the background of this event?

Missouri sought to enter the Union in 1819 through an act of Congress, just as all 7 of the states that had joined the Union following the adoption of the Constitution had done. But, because Missouri wanted to enter the Union as a slave state, northern congressmen were opposed to adding it because there would have then been one more slave state than free state.

Eventually, it was decided to admit Missouri as a slave state while allowing a section of Massachusetts to be separated and designated as the free state of Maine. The compromise also drew a line at the southern boundary of Missouri, declaring that slavery could not exist in territory north of that boundary.

  1. Then we had the Compromise of 1850- what were the main issues?

Here again, the status of slavery was the driving force. The United States had taken a great deal of territory from Mexico during the Mexican War, and the question of what should be the status of slavery in those lands threatened to divide the nation. But once again, Congress came to the rescue. It created a plan where California would come into the Union as a free state, and the rest of the land would be divided into a New Mexico Territory and a Utah Territory. In those territories, the residents would decide the status of the institution of slavery.

  1. Now the people involved- what were they like? Henry Clay, Daniel Webster-John C. Calhoun- what were these men like personally and what was their investment?

Henry Clay is known in American History as the Great Compromiser, and he definitely deserves that appellation. He was instrumental in the passage of the Missouri Compromise, and came up with many of the provisions of the Compromise of 1850. But there are other individuals like John Taylor and Jesse Thomas who helped shape the Missouri Compromise, and the Compromise of 1850 would not have been passed had it not been for the efforts of Stephen Douglas. History should remember these important compromisers.

  1. Then the Compromise of 1877-Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden. How did a compromise help to settle this situation?

If we think that the presidential election of 2000 had a controversial outcome, it pales in comparison with the election of 1876. In that contest, three states sent in two separate sets of electoral results. Both Democrats and Republicans threatened trouble if their results were not accepted, and Inauguration Day approached with no solution in sight.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. A committee comprised of 5 members of the House of Representatives, 5 members of the Senate, and 5 members of the Supreme Court was created to decide whether Tilden or Hayes should get the disputed votes. The committee decided to give all the votes to Hayes, and he won the election by one electoral vote. The supporters of Tilden accepted this, and in return Hayes agreed to withdraw the last federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction.

  1. Now, what about compromises between Presidents and other elected officials- Have there been any of note?

Our nation has seen numerous examples of compromises between the Executive and Legislative branches. Virtually every time that a president submits a budget, there is a give and take before Congress appropriates the funds. The two sides usually also have to compromise whenever Congress wants more information than a president is willing to give out.

  1. I know that you have studied the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs event. Would you consider any of those events to be worthy of the term “compromise” or some other term?

The Cuban Missile Crisis is a classic example of compromise on a global scale, although we didn’t know it at the time. It seemed that in October of 1962 that President Kennedy had given the Soviet Union an ultimatum to remove their missiles from Cuba and that the Soviets had acquiesced. We now know that privately the US had given assurances to the Soviet Union that we would remove our intermediate-range missiles from Greece and Turkey if the Soviets removed theirs from Cuba. So the world was saved from Armageddon by a willingness of both sides to accept “half a loaf.”

  1. In your mind, what would you consider to be the last major “compromise” in United States history?

We need look no further than this week. Republicans and Democrats in Congress agreed not to attempt to pass a bill regarding taxes until after the presidential election. That means that there will have to be significant work done in a short period of time or we’ll all have to pay higher taxes, but the members of Congress felt that it would be prudent not to legislate anything regarding taxation at this time.

  1. As this term of office of President Barack Obama comes to an end, would you point to any major events as being of compromise status?

I think that President Obama has been very willing to compromise. His health care reform didn’t go as far as he initially suggested, and his financial reforms of the banking industry were not as far reaching as many liberals had expected.

  1. What have I neglected to ask about this important principle of “compromise”?

You have asked great questions about an important subject!

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