We are presently witnessing an historic event during this 2008 presidential election. On the one hand, we could see the first female vice president resulting from the vote. On the other hand, we may find that we have elected our first black president. Either way, a glass ceiling will have been broken, heralding in a new era in our history. Many challenges had to be met before a moment like this could take place, beginning with the creation of a written constitution which reflected an entirely new understanding about government. I’m not talking about federalism or the idea that democracy could be scalable. What I’m referring to is the idea that there can be “conflict in consensus.”
Our Constitution was ratified on September 13, 1788 but only after a series of compromises were made, first by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and then during the ratification process when it was promised that a Bill of Rights would be added to the document in order to convince some state representatives to vote affirmatively. The careful notes that James Madison took during that long summer when the delegates hammered out the changes to his Virginia Plan –which later became the US Constitution, inform us that it wasn’t an easy process and that no one was entirely satisfied with the finished product. However, the Framers accepted that the Constitution they molded would not create a utopia. They were striving to achieve “national cohesion, political stability, economic growth, and individual liberty” -all out of reach under the Articles of Confederation. They understood that they were creating a more perfect union and that this process would be ongoing.
In order to create a more perfect union, they designed a government that would, “impede change until enough people supported it. To force people to the middle. To encourage compromise. To spread power around so that, in Alexander Hamilton’s succinct vision, the few could not oppress the many, and the many could not oppress the few. A lot could get done if people worked together in this system. But if they refused to compromise, it could all grind to a halt.” Our nation grew a “constitutional conscience” out of this acceptance of “conflict within consensus, compromise, representation, checks and balances, tolerance of debate. The American people were “bound to one another by our shared belief in our Constitution and its principles.”
It would take many years before equal rights were to be a serious consideration. The issue of slavery nearly tore our country apart. This is because “the Constitution’s design to force compromise and impede change until enough people supported it ultimately did not work on an issue that at root revolved around a moral choice with no compromise: Either slave owners had a property right to be protected, or slaves had a human right to be Americans. Both, ultimately, could not be true.” Lincoln tried to compromise and strived toward peaceful emancipation. However, even after the civil war amendments were passed, it took almost 100 more years before the promise of equal rights…what the war tried to force- actually came to fruition.
Women would eventually achieve the right to vote and it followed that those who were old enough to go to war were deemed old enough to vote.
“The United States is now the oldest enduring republic in world history, with a set of political institutions and traditions that have stood the test of time.” Yet, our democracy is fragile. It depends not only on educated and informed Americans participating in the nation’s political processes but acquiescing to the results of the processes. It is our civic responsibility to understand our heritage and our history so that we the people can continue to form a more perfect union as one people bound by a shared belief in the US Constitution and motivated by a uniquely American constitutional conscience. Now more than ever we need to” work out our differences and find compromises, consensus.”
Barack Obama calls our Constitution a fundamentally flawed document. The Constitution is not perfect but this is not because the document is flawed. It is because we the people have flaws. The Constitution makes a virtue out of our vice, the drive motivated by our self-interests. It forces us to meet in the middle. If we are unwilling to do so, the only option is to secede. Abraham Lincoln didn’t allow for that option. The next president must understand that the Framers built a document that rewards compromise. John McCain is the embodiment of that sentiment. The choice is between a candidate who believes the document is flawed and one who understands the importance of meeting in the middle and it is my hope that the electorate chooses the candidate who understands the meaning of creating a more perfect union.
All quotes are from The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved our Country and Why it can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes
Nancy Salvato is the President of Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country.
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