If we can’t find common ground, perhaps we’ll find a common grave

Today, Sept. 17, at 4 p.m., bells across America will ring — at schools, churches, firehouses, town halls, court houses, and in the hands of citizens. The tintinnabulation is to signal the start of Constitution Week, initiated in 1955.

We learned about the celebration when we talked to Gwendolyn Bondi, vice regent of the Old Hellebergh Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, for last week’s Enterprise podcast.

Although the Fourth of July, celebrating the Declaration of Independence, is abundantly observed, Bondi feels the 233-year-old Constitution deserves equal recognition. We do, too.

The document was as revolutionary as the war that birthed it but has since been used as a template for democracies around the world. While succinct, our Constitution outlines the roles for the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of our government that have stood the test of time.

What particularly interests us in our current moment of history is the way in which compromise was central to creating such an enduring document. The Federalists and Anti-Federalists were as far apart on central issues in the 1780s as Democrats and Republicans are today.

The Anti-Federalists were convinced that the Constitution could create a centralized government that diminished individual rights and liberties. The Federalists, supporters of the Constitution, like New York’s Alexander Hamilton, argued that bills of rights, like England’s Magna Carta were between kings and their subjects. Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, “The constitution is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.”

After the delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia labored from May 14 to Sept. 17, 1787 to create the document, nine of the 13 states were needed to ratify the Constitution. In the last month of 1787 and the first month of 1788, five states did so: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut.

In Massachusetts, however, the fighting was fierce — literally coming to blows. When Anti-Federalist Elbridge Gerry was not allowed to speak at the Massachusetts convention, blows were exchanged with Federalist delegate Francis Dana.

A way forward was found when Anti-Federalists John Hancock and Samuel Adams agreed to ratification if the Massachusetts convention would propose amendments. These proposals — for a grand jury indictment in capital cases, and for reserving powers to the states not expressly given to the federal government — became part of what we now know as the Bill of Rights.

“The Convention of Massachusetts adopted the Constitution in toto; but recommended a number of specific alterations and quieting explanations,” George Washington wrote in 1788 to the Marquis de Lafayette.

After what since has become known as the “Massachusetts compromise,” the Federalist minorities in both Virginia and New York ratified the Constitution at their conventions by linking ratification to recommended amendments. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution in July 1788.

At his inauguration as the first president of the United States, Washington on April 30, 1789 urged legislators, “Whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an united and effective government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question, how far the former can be impregnably fortified or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted.”

So Washington wanted to fortify the rights of freemen while at the same time promoting public harmony. Not one or the other — but both.

Congress on Sept. 25, 1789 approved 12 articles, largely crafted by James Madison, which were submitted to the states for ratification. Ten of them were ratified as additions to the constitution, and became the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights.

Late in his life, Madison wrote that no government can be perfect and therefore, “that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government.”

Compromise carried the day in the late 1700s and moved a new nation forward. We could learn from that example now — on both a national and local level. Where is the domestic tranquility, where is the promotion of the general welfare, where are the blessings of liberty today that the Constitution set out to secure?

Our government is in gridlock. We urge compromise, based on each side listening to the other. As each side instead clings solely to its own idea of perfection, the two sides are unable to work towards Madison’s “least imperfect” and therefore best governmental decisions.

For example, with a much-needed federal stimulus package  —  many Americans are still out of work, many businesses are still shut or closed for good, and many state and local governments are spent — why not compromise?

The Democratic House of Representatives came up with a plan in May — with trillions for state and local governments — that the Republican Senate wouldn’t embrace.

The “skinny” plan recently proposed by the Republicans — with no funds for state and local governments — enraged some Democrats. Meanwhile, in the midst of the stalemate, American citizens are hurting.

Again we ask: Why not compromise? Why not find common ground? Handling the pandemic was pushed to the states with little federal leadership. Now the states need some support — not only have they paid for services to stem the pandemic but their tax base has eroded because of shutdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

As those conflicts at the time our democracy was born so clearly show, our nation is both a configuration of individual states as well as a centralized federal government. Our name says it all: The United States of America.

We see the same sort of entrenchment with local governments, too. In the rural town of Berne, for example, we have written about how the GOP-backed members of the town board have spent over $15,000 investigating — largely without any worthwhile results — Democrats elected to the board.

Democrats on the board, in turn, spent up to $4,000 to pay for sheriff’s deputies to staff a metal detector for town board meetings because they felt threatened by a Republican on the board.

Where is the good of the people being served with these expenditures?

Our Hilltown reporter, Noah Zweifel, recently wrote about an executive session — the Berne Town Board voted to release the video to the public — where the bulk of the closed meeting was spent strategizing on how to remove the sole remaining Democrat on the board from office. 

We commend the town attorney for recommending mediation over legal action. These duly elected representatives of the people should put aside their personal differences and work for the good of the Berne citizens.

We’re in the midst of tough times — a pandemic, an economic depression, racial unrest, and climate change that is worsening both floods and fires. Now is the time, locally and nationally, to listen to what the other side is saying with an intent to understand. And then to compromise so that the government can move forward in serving the people.

As our first president said on our nation’s inaugural inauguration, the rights of freemen — and now, of course, our Constitution has expanded that to all men and women — should be fortified while at the same time public harmony is promoted.

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