It may not seem like it in this day and age of media hotheads and internet warriors, but consensus happens to be one of the longest political traditions in America – dating as far back as the Mayflower Compact. In studying the American political tradition, the conservative scholar Willmoore Kendall noted one of the Pilgrims’ stated purposes in the Compact was “for our better Ordering,” having realized they were thousands of miles from the rule of law and in need of some sort of system. In his analysis, Kendall elaborates that the Pilgrims’ invocation of God and use of “solemnly” is an “emphasis that the act is a deliberate act, an act, let us say now, of deliberation.” With the establishment of the Compact “the door is thrown wide open for continuous deliberation about what is good order, what is good regime.” Of course, we all know this “continuous deliberation” is still ongoing, but Kendall’s examination of the Compact’s text reveal other important subtleties by concluding that “the Compact does assert a certain kind of equality, namely, an equal capacity on the part of the signers to give or withhold consent. We might fairly expect, then, that if in due course the Compact itself becomes a symbol of a new society, that society will assert that kind of freedom and that kind of equality and will, therefore, place a high value on getting everybody’s consent to its law, or, at least, on achieving consensus.”
Naturally, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are the two political documents that are the most familiar to Americans, but we rarely reflect on an important word they mutually contain: Unanimous. And the historical record proves just how deliberate these documents were. Since the Mayflower Compact established a political tradition of self-government through a deliberative process, “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America” contains a laundry list of what the Americans believed violated their existing rights – 11 complaints on this count, to be exact. But the Declaration of Independence was not the result of some angry mob zipping off the equivalent of an email rant full of frothing, overblown hyperbole to the editor of a newspaper.
Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson wrote the DoI, but the involvement of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams is often discussed as a footnote to history instead of the editing of the text itself being an important civic lesson in consensus. The Founders must have placed a great deal of importance on the Declaration having the weight “Unanimous” conveyed for them to have sacrificed Jefferson’s condemnation of slavery – an unfortunate sticking point that could have prevented the DoI from gaining approval at all. I can only imagine what today’s pundits and activist groups would demand of the representatives at the Continental Congress. Would we sacrifice our independence for purity? Thankfully, we don’t have to answer that question, as the Founders set the issue aside so that they might instead stand united against Britain and resume the fight another day.
Buried in the Constitution, in Article VII, the Framers not only introduce an American Shire Reckoning but write the completed Constitution was “done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present.” Being only 11 years younger than the DoI , it bears the same slavery scars as the Declaration. The southern states wanted their slaves fully counted, which would have given them an advantage in Congress, while the northern states didn’t want them counted at all, thus giving them the Congressional edge. Obviously neither side wanted to concede to the other, and the result is the rather infamous 3/5th Compromise. The Framers discussed the matter, considered each others’ positions and found a compromise they could all agree too, realizing that a better consensus would unfortunately have to wait for future generations to achieve. They didn’t allow this one issue to derail their larger purpose. They were supposed to amend the Articles of Confederation but after deliberating, they realized America needed something better – and completely different. What they gave us instead of an overhauled Confederation was a system that allows We the People to debate, deliberate, consider various points of view, compromise and, perhaps most importantly, it allows us to continue this process indefinitely – our consensus always evolving (usually for the better). It’s a system that has stood the test of time, our Constitution being the longest standing continuous form of government in the world. It’s imperfect, but it works.
It’s an interesting thought experiment to think of our Founders in today’s politically divisive atmosphere. Two things occur to me when I do, the first being that Benjamin Franklin would master the art of media manipulation like no public figure ever before and he would certainly put the vast majority of the punditry to shame with his intelligence and wit, rivaled perhaps by none but William F. Buckley. The other thing that occurs to me is the unlikelihood that the Founders could achieve today’s equivalent of the Constitution. I can just imagine Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck both hyperventilating that there is a secretive oligarchy going on in Philadelphia. The media would create a total frenzy for Jefferson to fly in from France to participate, and meanwhile CBS would be off faking documents about General Washington’s service record. We would not get the Constitution today because, politically, we no longer value compromise as it is falsely seen as concession. We have come to value the scoring of political points more than valuing the achievement of consensus – perhaps because media hype for ratings growth has trumped objectivity and trickled into the consciousness of the electorate so that every issue is now blown out of proportion to a life or death conflict instead of a political debate.
And reaching a consensus is an achievement. It takes work, which might explain why some people recoil at it, but achievement is, by its very definition, worthy of pride. That our Founders could reach a consensus, not just to establish our independence but again to establish our nation, should be a point of pride and inspiration for all Americans. While history shows we humans will never agree on all points, we Americans (and others too) can come together, discuss our issues, find common ground, and live together in relative peace and security despite our differences. If We the People want resolutions to our current problems, we will need to rediscover our tradition of deliberation and consensus – that incredible progress can be made when we set our differences aside and shake hands over common ground.