A devout Catholic and a pro-abortion socialist walk into a conference room. No, this isn’t a setup for a joke. It’s an example of how America can win. If that seems odd, consider this one: a slave owner and an abolitionist walk into a hall in Philadelphia. That’s no joke, either: it’s how America began.
In 1787, men who wanted slavery to end convened in Philadelphia with men who wanted slavery to grow. Their purpose was to write America’s Constitution. Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, delegates to the convention, were ardent abolitionists. George Washington, chairman of the convention, opposed slavery, too, writing a year before “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” Pierce Butler, delegate for South Carolina, thought otherwise. “The security the southern states want is that their negroes may not be taken from them,” he declared.
The Framers bridged a nation over these deep divides. Congress today can’t even pass an infrastructure bill needed to fix bridges. A bridge too far for this Congress is—well, any bridge.
The Framers succeeded because they embraced horse trading, the art of pragmatic compromise. Congress’ refusal to do anything of the kind today holds America back. Consider one horse trade of the 1787 convention: the Three-Fifths Compromise, which ensured that three-fifths of a state’s slaves would count both toward the tax it might owe to the federal government and to the power it would have in Congress. The Three-Fifths Compromise worked because it linked important issues together in a calibrated way. Just how much congressional power did the anti-slavery states need to give up to get an agreement on eventually banning the slave trade? The Framers sought as precise an answer to that question as arithmetic could provide. Hence the fraction. The constitution they approved permitted Congress to ban slave imports, but only after 1807. Benefiting from congressional power retained in the compromise, the anti-slavery states did just that on the first day they could: January 1, 1808.
Was America’s founding worth making this compromise? Of course it was.
America is the one nation that has best realized freedom and equality for all. Americans are freer and more equal and yet of more colors and creeds than citizens of any other nation. America rid herself of slavery, which had been international practice. She liberated Japan from despotism and Europe from Fascists, Nazis, and communists. She enriched her people, among whom even the poorest are rich compared to billions abroad. She proved that a nation of men free to think as they will, speak as they wish, and do as they please can together achieve more than any nation forcing its citizens to think, say, and do as the government commands. What would be obvious to the Framers seems utterly lost on too many today: compromise made all this brilliant success possible.
The arc of American history always bent toward justice and always will. That arc can break only under the intransigence of uncompromising men. The only casualty compromise left on the floor of the Philadelphia convention was pride.
Uncompromising moralism rejects more than America’s founding. It rejects any secular government over a free people. Either the governed are free to disagree over what is right or the government decides what is right over the objections of the governed. The only way for the governed to remain free while the government inches its way toward the true good is compromise. Some compromises already occurred in the Constitution: they are set. Others remain.
In America today, four horses require trading: labor offshoring, entitlement funding, uncontrolled immigration—which, like the Three-Fifths Compromise, affects how congressional power is distributed among the states—and an evil surpassing even slavery: abortion. There can be no compromise on any of these issues alone. The issues must be linked together into a grand bargain.
How many would-be abortions is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) willing to stop in exchange for shored-up Medicare and Social Security or an expanded child-care subsidy? For how long is Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) willing to postpone pushing for a federal ban on abortion in exchange for better-controlled immigration and narrower labor offshoring? How do the weights adjust when, according to the Constitution as enacted, abortion properly ceases to be a guaranteed right? The end of abortion is inevitable, just like the end of slavery. As with slavery, the open question is whether, when abortion ends, it ends for everyone in an intact and prosperous America, or only for some in a fractured one.
A grand bargain may touch any issue. Could large companies be banned from discriminating on the basis of religion or politics? Could unions be banned from politics but helped to organize for improved wages and benefits so that public entitlements could be smaller and the market-distorting taxes required to fund them lower?
Today, Speaker Pelosi can’t even pass an infrastructure bill. Radical Democratic congressmen are holding it hostage. But she has never asked for a Republican vote to make up for the votes the radicals threaten to withhold, and Leader McCarthy has never suggested that he would provide any. Pelosi and McCarthy don’t even appear to meet for lunch. In 1787, the abolitionist Morris met the slaveholding Butler to found a nation. Today, two congressmen from California can’t even meet for lunch. Adults would. The children in charge today won’t.