One of the fascinating realities of the American Constitution is that it is one of the most perfect examples of political compromise in all the history of Western democracy. Political conservatives speak of the Constitution as if it were a sacred writing, infallible in every word, and the product of men of wisdom who rose above all petty human concerns to create the most perfect government ever conceived.
It takes a substantial dose of ignorance to believe such romantic notions about our constitutional foundations.
In truth, the final form of the much-debated Constitution represents the fruit of numerous compromises between various viewpoints which could not be reconciled without everyone giving up a little bit of this cherished idea or that pet scheme. Notice, to give one glaring example, Article I, Section 2, which included these words (until changed by the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War): The number of citizens in each state “shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
In other words, free persons and temporarily indentured servants were considered full citizens; Native Americans were not unless they were taxed; and slaves were considered to be 60% legitimate citizens. This blatant racism, now abhorrent to all except the worst racists, is a point of particular shame in the Constitution. But even those who opposed slavery in principle could ask for no stronger statement because some of them — such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — were slaveholders themselves. This part of the Constitution, then, was a compromise between the pro- and anti-slavery positions.
The Constitution was at first considered such an imperfect document that several states refused to ratify it until the promise was made that the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments) would be added immediately. In that Bill of Rights is another major compromise that pleased no one but offended everyone as little as possible. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . .”
We are rightly proud of our tradition of freedom of religion but we seldom realize that none of the founding fathers envisioned this freedom as essential to the Union. It was added later, as an Amendment, and reflected the fact that several of the states already had established state churches and could never have agreed together which one church could be accepted as the national church. The vision of the founders at first had little to do with religious freedom or a preference for a secular state free of religious influence. Instead, there was simply no way to determine which religion could be established.
We should not fail to notice that there never was a consideration that any religion other than Christianity might be recognized. The issue was about what we now call the various Christian denominations.
So I find it amusing, sometimes irritating and sometimes infuriating, that the Constitution is now exalted by those who proclaim compromise to be a sign of lack of principles. I do not believe that any of our founding fathers or Abraham Lincoln would be welcome in today’s Republican Party. They would simply be shouted down as knaves.