It’s the most famous dinner in U.S. history. It was hosted by Thomas Jefferson at his well-appointed townhouse on Maiden Lane, a stone’s throw from Federal Hall where Congress was in session. It was at a time when New York City was the nation’s capital, with little settled and much yet to be accomplished, when the success of the new Federal Government was anything but a sure thing. The city was rampant with intrigue and rumors, and fears that President George Washington was gravely ill and near death.
The guests at Jefferson’s townhouse that evening were Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the ex-facto leader of the House of Representatives, James Madison. After a sumptuous dinner accompanied by a variety of French wines, the three moved from the dining room to the parlor. First, they drank a toast to the president who, that very morning had recovered from his sick bed. Then they got down to pressing business. Congress was deadlocked over passage of Hamilton’s Assumption Bill, while the Residency Bill was still being debated a year after it had been introduced in the House. These very bills were the two cards being played, with the stakes exceedingly high, as the future of the fragile Republic depended very much on what was to be decided that night.
There was really only one solution, a compromise that (1) would assure passage of the Assumption Bill—which would appease Hamilton and further strengthen the Federal Government—and (2) revision of the Residency Bill that would result in the nation’s capital moving not to Pennsylvania as expected, but to the wooded banks of the Potomac River, which would appease Jefferson and Madison and assure that the South would not secede from the Union. As a result, Hamilton convinced his Northern friends to vote for the revised Residency Bill while Jefferson and Madison convinced their Southern friends to vote for the Assumption Bill.
Compromise has become something of a dirty word in recent times, the c-word as it were. Yet, if there is one word that describes our nation’s founding it’s the c-word. It was only after a considerable amount of compromise that the Declaration of Independence was passed and the United States of America was born. And it was only after a considerable amount of compromise that the U.S. Constitution was passed and the Federal Government was created. Yes, compromise, the lack of which has hobbled Congress and fueled the current distrust of Washington. To hear some politicians tell it, compromise means ignoring their constituency back home that elected them, and failing to live up to some ideal that few share, while viewing the opposing party as less than honorable and not only wrong but very wrong. Yet, for over 200 years, making compromise deals with the other party was how things got done in Washington. Today’s conservatives point to President Ronald Reagan as the great savant, conveniently ignoring the fact that the only way he got things done was through compromise. Reagan the conservative cut deals with liberals such as Henry Waxman and Ted Kennedy and House Leader Tip O’Neil. Reagan knew: slogans may get you elected, but pragmatism builds your legacy. Reagan had his principles, certainly, but he never let them get in the way of achieving his ultimate goal of making America stronger and safer and more affluent.
Republican Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, said this about compromise. “On issues of great national significance, one party should never simply force its will on everybody else. . . . What seems to have been forgotten is that it’s not an act of betrayal to work with one’s political adversaries when doing so is good for the country.” Further on he writes, “If you want to be a U.S. Senator, you need to be at peace with imperfect outcomes. A party is not a church; it is a toolbar achieving shared goals. The point isn’t to get comfortable with failure. It is to recognize that failure today often carries the seed of tomorrow’s success. It’s to see the wisdom of the hitchhiker: If the first car that stops is only going halfway to your destination, take it.” (Wall Street Journal, May 31)
Speaking at Howard University’s commencement ceremony on May 7 President Barak Obama made a similar point. “Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress.”
President Obama went on to say, “We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led. But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed. And those seminal bills were not perfect—just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was a clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule. But they made things better. And you know what, I take better every time. I always tell my staff—better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.”
In “Profiles in Courage” then-Senator John F. Kennedy wrote: “There are few if any issues where all the truth and all the right and all the angels are on one side. . . . Some of my colleagues who are criticized today for lack of forthright principles—or who are looked upon with scornful eyes as compromising ‘politicians’—are simply engaged in the fine art of conciliating, balancing and interpreting the forces and factions of public opinion, an art essential to keeping our nation united and enabling our Government to function. Their consciences may direct them from time to time to take a more rigid stand for principle—but their intellects tell them that a fair or poor bill is better than no bill at all, and that only through the give-and take of compromise will any bill receive the successful approval of the Senate, the House, the President and the nation.”
Finally, to me, Alexander Hamilton represents the politician at his very best showing an absence of malice, “a steady willingness,” in H.L. Mencken’s words, “to believe that his opponent is as honorable a man as himself, and may be right.”