The founding era of the United States was no less divided and conflicted than the Washington we find so frustrating today.
During the revolutionary years, people loyal to Great Britain made up as much as 20 percent of the population.
Colonies were reluctant to contribute money and supplies to the war effort. Citizens were willing to serve in the continental army only for a short time or when the fighting was near their “country,” their state.
After the war, though political parties as we know them today had not yet formed fully, partisan politics was rampant. The Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans traded barbs constantly.
The Democratic-Republicans initially believed a small, weak national government with a limited executive was essential to freedom.
The Federalists thought a large, strong national government with a strong executive was required to hold the nation together. This led to significant tension and even hostility.
Thomas Jefferson, while serving as George Washington’s secretary of state, was involved in a behind-the-scenes media campaign critiquing Washington and the Federalists’ policies, which he believed to be harmful to the nation and contrary to liberty.
Jefferson’s use of an opposition press was prominent during the 1796 presidential election – one of the most uncivil in U.S. history – and continued this practice while he served as John Adams’ vice president from 1797-1801.
The list of controversies and divisions is long and intriguing, but it should be evident that political disagreement is not a new problem.
The “founding generation” was not an era of harmony from which we have since fallen away.
A more historically accurate assessment would be “the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree.”
Or, as Ecclesiastes 1:9 proclaims: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
Therefore, we can learn from the good and bad of this era, and there is at least one shining example of overcoming deep-seated differences to collaborate for the common good: the constitutional convention of 1787.
Faced with an unworkable governmental structure, leaders from 12 colonies – Rhode Island did not send delegates – met to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they created a new governmental structure by writing a new constitution.
The issues were many, the opinions diverse and passionately held. They included matters still debated today: the size and reach of the national government vis-à-vis the states; the power of the executive and its relationships to the legislative and judicial branches; qualifications for voting; taxation and the national debt.
Despite significant disagreements, advocates on all sides of the myriad issues compromised to create a system that was not perfect but workable.
My point? Accurate historical memory prevents us from two pitfalls: believing the myth of inevitable progress, and losing hope in the possibility of compromise for the common good in a highly divided political system.
The founders’ efforts at compromise did not cure all of the nation’s ills or eliminate its divisions.
The young republic continued to face many challenges, and their failure to decisively end slavery led to civil war in the 1860s.
Nevertheless, their actions reveal that even in a polarized political climate that seems to preclude cooperation, it is possible to set aside partisanship and rigid ideology to focus on the common good.
This means that bipartisan legislation that addresses significant issues is as possible today as it was then.
What it requires are leaders who will stop playing to their political base in front of the cameras and will invest serious effort in finding ways to compromise for the sake of the common good.
As an aside, while 24/7 media coverage has many positives aspects, the constitutional convention was a closed-door affair to allow representatives to speak freely and make compromises without being constantly concerned about public opinion.
Our leaders appearing on national TV every day likely makes compromise and collaboration more challenging.
The 1787 convention reveals that compromise does not require jettisoning core beliefs or creating a system in which everyone thinks the same.
But it does necessitate civility and a realistic understanding that no one will agree fully with any legislation. What matters is that it advances the common good, not one person’s, party’s or group’s agenda.
The good news is that the challenges we face today are no greater than those our nation’s leaders faced previously. In fact, many present-day disagreements and divisions are over similar issues.
It could be said that our core national debates haven’t changed much in 200 years; what changes is the people we elect to address them.
What always remains to be seen is whether contemporary leaders will rise to the challenge.