Compromise

I once heard it said that history is one of the subjects you study after you know everything else. Well, I don’t know everything else — and not as much history as I would like. But I do find myself captivated by studies in-depth of the goings-on many years ago — especially during the founding of this nation. As a consequence, I have been reading a good bit of American history of late.

One of the better books I have come across is Gary Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I have not finished the book yet, but I have already learned some things I did not know.

I did not know, for example, that Samuel Adams (cousin of John) was a bit of a sleeze-ball. He would fit in nicely with today’s politicians since he liked to slink about and make deals behind closed doors. He kept a very low profile, not making speeches or drawing attention to himself while he plotted with like-minded radicals to help bring about independence from England. (One must wonder about his motivation.) He also apparently manipulated his cousin and John was only too happy to comply as he saw Samuel through rose-colored glasses. But he did get things done. Like the Boston Tea Party.

There is not much known about the folks involved in that event, but there is fairly sound evidence that Sam Adams was one of the major players — if not the one who initiated the event in which ninety thousand pounds of tea was thrown into the Boston harbor to protest the tea tax. No sooner was the event completed then Samuel  “went immediately to work spreading his version of the incident” (as he himself admitted later). This is what he did: he spread word — including “false facts” (as we now call them) and huge exaggerations — coining the term “massacre” later on to describe the shooting of “several” people in Boston. Both Sam and John were frustrated that the other colonies were not paying close attention to what was going on in Boston and Sam saw it as his job to spread the word — true or not.  He was Machiavellian to the core, committed to the notion that the end justifies the means.

I was also surprised to hear that the various colonies were completely separate and distinct political entities — each with its own charter with the King and even separate constitutions — not to say coinage in many cases. In fact, they thought of themselves as separate countries — like those in Europe. Separate and distinct. John Adams said they spoke different languages and each colony had its own culture. When it was time for representatives of the thirteen colonies to meet in Philadelphia for a second time they appeared, but there was still an undercurrent of distrust. After all, these men were planning the separation from the most powerful country on earth and they would be regarded as traitors, or at the very least rebels (which is what the English called them). They worried that among them there would be spies who would go to the authorities and reveal who was involved and what their plans were.  They were risking their lives and had to find ways to trust people who were in every sense of the word foreign to them.  So deep was the distrust of one colony for another during the first Continental Congress that one delegate from New York told John Adams:

“If England were to cast us adrift, we should instantly go to civil wars among ourselves to determine which colony should govern all the rest.”

It is one of the wonders of the eighteenth century that those thirteen colonies were able to cooperate enough to fight against the much more powerful England, not to say fight successfully. This was a fight they would not have won, of course, without the assistance of France who supplied them with gun powder, weapons, and eventually naval power. The French hated the English and were only too happy to help anyone who was willing take them on! But, still, England at the time ruled the world.

In the end, despite the distrust and perhaps with the help of the machinations of people like Samuel Adams, the colonists did cooperate because they realized that compromise was essential to their cause. The Southern states would not hear any talk about abolition of slavery and the North was peopled by hundreds of abolitionists and generally tended to think they were superior to all the other colonies. But they were willing to compromise, to come together in a common cause and unite such disparate elements into one union — which Lincoln later struggled desperately to hold together.

How alike we are as individuals; the descendants of Samuel Adams can be found slinking about Washington D.C. today — even occupying positions of great power. And yet we have forgotten how to compromise, to cooperate with one another in order to bring about what is best for the nation and its people.

10 thoughts on “Compromise

  1. Excellent post, Hugh! I have found in my studies of history in North America and Europe that the most effective leaders often resorted to unsavoury methods. As you pointed out, mass communication in the 18th Century was limited. As we speak about the current disunity in America, it is good to remind ourselves that America has always been an uneasy union founded upon compromise. The biggest difference between the 13 colonies and the Canadian colonies before Confederation in 1867 is that the American colonies considered themselves sovereign nations while their Canadian counterparts never did. This significant difference guaranteed that both nations, Canada and the USA, would evolve differently as they viewed common issues through different psychological lenses.

  2. Brilliant! A reminder, Hugh, that life itself is all about compromise…for better or for worse. We as a nation seem to be leaning toward the latter of the two. I’m so disheartened, but find solace in small yet important reminders of uncompromising truths. Thank you, Raye

  3. Excellent, Hugh! You’ve taught me some things … I did not know that, for instance, about Sam Adams. It often seems, these days, that we have forgotten the lessons of history, forgotten about that word “unity”, and how very important it is for a nation so large that it contains 330 million people (and even more guns). That quote, “United we stand, divided we fall” is so very true … and in this, the day of extreme divisiveness, much of it created for political purposes, it is a chilling thing to think about. Then there’s that other one … “Divide and conquer”. Something to think about. I will check out Wills’ book … sounds like a good ‘un.

  4. Hugh, good post. There are several interesting points, but at the heart is compromise is essential as no one side can do things alone in a sustainable way. There has to be some level of buy in. I use the example of Denmark’s climate change plan that set in motion well before the Paris accord. As their country is below sea level, they have been concerned with water far longer than most. They developed a long term plan that needed buy-in to last beyond the next party gaining control. The plan could not be shelved. Kudos to the Danes.

    As for history, I think, in large part, the negative attributes and fighting are often overlooked Benjamin Franklin credits Thomas Payne with helping inspire the revolution. But, per a recent Mobituaries (great reading by Mo Rocca), Payne was insufferable wanting consistent revolution. By the time he died, only four people showed up at his funeral, as he ticked off most people. Per Mo, he was the party guest you avoided.

    The best glimpse of Samuel Adams I got was the excellent HBO documentary series on John Adams, based on letters to/ from his wife Abigail, who was quite the wordsmith as well. Samuel was definitely more of a hell-raiser than John, but he saw the power of what John could do with his legal background.

    Keith

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