President John Kennedy was forced to re-evaluate what he had been taught about American history and his fundamental understanding of human behaviour following his experience with Southerners bent on keeping James Meredith from attending “Ole Miss.” (See my previous two posts.) Arthur Schlesinger wrote in Robert Kennedy and His Times:
The Oxford crisis, most of all the military intervention, shocked the white south. It also shocked the Kennedys. They had never thought it would come to this. Their assumption in 1961 was that unreasonable problems would yield to law and reason. Ole Miss showed them how stubborn, savage, deeply rooted the problems were…They had been brought up to believe, for example, that Reconstruction was a matter of southern whites rescuing their states from ignorant and incompetent ex-slaves – the view reflected in Profiles in Courage where John Kennedy had described Thaddeus Stevens as “the crippled, fanatical personification of the extremes of the Radical Republican movement.” Now, after reading the Mississippi legislature’s report on Oxford, he told Robert he could never take this view of Reconstruction again. “He said,” his brother recalled, “that they can say these things about what the marshals did and what we were doing…and believe it. They must have been doing the same thing 100 years ago. The next year, when Medgar Evers, Meredith’s friend and counselor, was murdered in front of his house in Jackson, the President said sadly to me, “I don’t understand the South. I’m coming to believe that Thaddeus Stevens was right. I had always been taught to regard him as a man of vicious bias. But when I see this sort of thing, I begin to wonder how else you can treat them.”
John Kennedy had told Congress in his first annual message, “Before my term is ended we shall have to test anew whether a nation organized and governed such as ours can endure. The outcome is by no means certain.”
Kennedy’s message echoed that of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the first Republican President on a platform that opposed the extension of slavery into the western territories. In response, Southern political leaders began their attempts to break up the United States. Between the election in November and Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, there were numerous attempts to find some solution, some compromise, that would avert the nation’s grave crisis. For decades legislative compromises had been achieved that had forestalled the conflict such as the Missouri Compromise of 1821 and the Compromise of 1850. Lincoln was a great admirer of the principle architect of these compromises, Henry Clay. But Lincoln decided the time for compromise had come to an end. He wrote to William Seward on February 1, 1861:
I say now, however, as I have all the while said, that on the territorial question — that is, the question of extending slavery under the national auspices, — I am inflexible. I am for no compromise which assists or permits the extension of the institution on soil owned by the nation.
There are those who would argue that the result of Lincoln’s inflexibility on the subject of slavery’s extension led to the greatest Constitutional crisis in the country’s history and a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and devastated large portions of the country. This interpretation of Lincoln led some historians to argue that the death of the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay and his contemporaries gave way to a lack of true statesmen and a “blundering generation.” This argument averred that Civil War could have been avoided through compromise. Most historians have argued against this interpretation, however, and Lincoln is generally regarded as one of the best Presidents the country has ever had.
In 1964, Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater stated:
This is a party, this Republican Party, a Party for free men, not for blind followers, and not for conformists. Back in 1858 Abraham Lincoln said this of the Republican party – and I quote him, because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: “It was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements” in 1858. Yet all of these elements agreed on one paramount objective: To arrest the progress of slavery, and place it in the course of ultimate extinction.
Goldwater, in the same speech, went on to famously say “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Goldwater is revered by many as the father of modern conservatism. From Wikipedia:
In 1964, Goldwater ran a conservative campaign that emphasized “states’ rights.” Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was a magnet for conservatives since he opposed interference by the federal government in state affairs. Although he had supported all previous federal civil rights legislation and had supported the original senate version of the bill, Goldwater made the decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His stance was based on his view that the act was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and that the Act interfered with the rights of private persons to do or not do business with whomever they chose. All this appealed to white Southern Democrats, and Goldwater was the first Republican to win the electoral votes of the Deep South states (Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina) since Reconstruction.
Today, long-time Republican Senator Dick Lugar, in the wake of his primary election loss, issued a public letter in which he decried the increasing extreme partisanship of our current political parties. Lugar seemingly lost his Senate seat because his opponent was able to portray him as a compromiser. Lugar wrote:
Too often bipartisanship [compromise] is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times.
A quick web search turns up numerous articles and blogposts arguing that compromise is essential to democracy. Here, for example:
We’ve done no greater damage in our society than to allow the word ‘compromise’ to have somehow developed a pejorative status. Compromise is the tool. It’s the human tool by which we find a way to live amongst each other, despite our differences, and not to kill each other over our differences. Compromise is the essence of what we do. Compromise is what democracy is. Without compromise, there is no democracy. When you compromise, you exercise democracy.
Yet, as Americans we are taught as schoolchildren Patick Henry’s passionate cry, “Give me liberty or give me death!” We are taught to admire Henry’s defiant, courageous, no compromise attitude.
So, what do we do with these conflicting messages? Is compromise good or bad? How do we know when to compromise and when to stand firm? Furthermore, as the Kennedys discovered, it is quite difficult to compromise with those who do not want to compromise. Despite the fact that the United States is nearly 236 years old, it remains to be seen, as Lincoln and Kennedy said in their time, whether a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, organized and governed such as ours, can endure. I remain an optimist.