During times of divided government, as we have now, the word “compromise” is invoked quite often. For self-described moderates, the word is golden, indicating an open-mindedness and pragmatism that is essential when it comes to governing. For many liberals and conservatives, on the other hand, the word is radioactive, evidence of a lack of conviction and a willingness to jettison important principles in the interest of getting a deal, any deal.
In sorting through these different interpretations of compromise, it may be helpful to consider the actions of two remarkable American statesmen: James Madison and Abraham Lincoln.
At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Southern delegates made it clear: they would walk out before they would give consent to a government that outlawed slavery. If the Articles of Confederation were going to be replaced by a new Constitution, those advocating the Constitution would have to compromise. “Great as the evil [of slavery] is,” James Madison said, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” And so just as language condemning slavery was removed in the draft of the Declaration of Independence, so it was with the Constitution. Madison made the deal in part because he believed the Constitution would eventually help uproot slavery. It would occur more slowly than he wanted, but he wasn’t going to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Madison had a similar disposition on the Bill of Rights. He initially opposed them on the grounds the Constitution itself was a bill of rights and the enumeration of some rights would be taken as the absence of others. But in order to meet the objections of the anti-Federalists, who demanded support for a bill of rights in exchange for support for ratification, Madison compromised, promising to add a bill of rights and, in typical Madison fashion, authoring them.
Then there is Abraham Lincoln. Henry Clay had been Lincoln’s favorite politician, a powerful orator who Lincoln himself had twice supported for president. But in 1848, Lincoln supported Zachary Taylor rather than Clay for the Whig nomination. “There is no doubt which of the two men … Lincoln in his heart, and in the abstract, preferred,” wrote the Lincoln biographer William Lee Miller. “There was no comparison.”
Lincoln explained himself in a letter, saying, “Our only chance is Taylor. I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than Polk, or Cass, or Buchanan [all Democrats] or any other such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected if he is not.”
As a young man Lincoln made this generalization:
The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.
Professor Miller adds, “[M]any reflective moralists, and most serious politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, perceive … that good and evil come mixed and that the moral life most of the time (not quite all of the time) consists of making discriminate judgments, judgments at the margins, discernments of less and more…”
Madison and Lincoln were superb politicians — tactically flexible and shrewd, able to distinguish between subsidiary issues and fundamental ones, and rejecting what has been called the “seductive appeal of the absolute” in order to work for the better. Both men were hard-headed, realistic and principled. They struck a deal if, but only if, they believed it would advance the cause to which they were dedicated.
Throughout American history, the word “compromise” has been a Rorschach test. By temperament and experience, many of us are drawn to, or made uneasy by, the concept. But those predispositions need to be set aside. Compromise, after all, can’t be judged in the abstract; it can only be assessed in particular circumstances. And it’s a two-edged sword. It’s basic to self-government — but in the wrong hands, in weak hands, compromise leads to setbacks. As a general rule, the best compromises are the ones agreed to by people who are willing to walk away from them, who see them as a means instead of an end. Think of Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik.
Duff Cooper, the British politician and author, said there’s a difference between the willingness in principle to compromise and the willingness to compromise on principle. Madison and Lincoln understood the distinction. So did Reagan. So should we.