Last updated: February 19. 2013 6:58PM - 371 Views

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I SEE the necessity of sacrificing our opinions sometimes to the opinions of others for the sake of harmony.

Thomas Jefferson, 1790

Compromise cleared a path for the unanimous vote of 13 disparate colonies in support of American independence. It was compromise that made the improbable possible when the affirmative votes of nine states ratified the U.S. Constitution and created a bicameral legislature where only a single chamber was envisioned.

Compromise comes in all shapes and sizes filling voluminous congressional journals with great debates requiring pivotal votes. Historian Shelby Foote noted: Americans like to think of themselves as uncompromising. Our true genius is for compromise. Our whole government's founded on it.

Such are the checks and balances, explicit and implicit, that permeate our Constitution, an engine of democracy shrewdly designed and fueled by serious argument, deliberation and compromise to power a great nation.

It is only in the absence of compromise that the American experiment slams into debt ceilings, careens needlessly to the edge of fiscal cliffs or sputters to abrupt stops.

Congress has 36 days to reach agreement with the White House on a deficit reduction plan/framework, providing additional tax revenue coupled with meaningful spending cuts, or watch everyone's taxes increase in January.

As House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, motors from the Capitol Building to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., he need only ask why every street sign lining Washington's magnificent grand boulevard reads, Pennsylvania Avenue.


With the election of President George Washington in 1788, the new government operated from New York City while a bitter legislative battle waged over where to locate the nation's permanent capital city.

The Southern states demanded it be moved south, to a more central location on the Potomac River boarding Maryland and Virginia (two slave states) and closer to President Washington's home at Mount Vernon.

Northern representatives did not want the capital shifted any farther south than suggested sites near Philadelphia, Trenton, N.J., or south-central Pennsylvania on the eastern banks of the Susquehanna River.

When Trenton looked promising, Southern congressmen led by James Madison, of Virginia, stopped its funding. When the House approved the Susquehanna site, Southerners in the Senate helped approve the Philadelphia location, and Madison made sure both bills died.

At the same time Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, of New York, was pushing the national government to assume the Revolutionary War indebtedness of several states. The largest debt was owed by Northern states that favored Hamilton's idea. Southern states, better able to manage their loans, did not want the federal government assuming Northern debt for which they would in part be responsible.

Both issues were tearing the fabric of a young country. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson believed the situation endangered a dissolution of our union at this incipient stage. Jefferson seized the moment to invite Hamilton and Madison to dinner on June 20, 1790 at his residence at 57 Maiden Lane in New York.

There, after much discussion, a deal was struck. Hamilton would provide Northern votes to locate the nation's capital along the Potomac and Madison would moderate his opposition and deliver enough Southern support to authorize the federal government to assume the war debt of the states.

Compromise requires courage, self-confidence and a belief in the greater good.

The Residence Act permanently locating the capital of the United States along the Potomac River passed the House and Senate by a single vote, and President Washington signed it in July 1790. Hamilton's debt legislation was narrowly approved in August.

New York was becoming a financial capital, dreaming of a canal from the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and all the benefits it might bring.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, would become the nation's capital for 10 years until a capital city on the Potomac could be readied with a grand boulevard to be named Pennsylvania Avenue.

Compromise works.

Kevin Blaum's column on government, life and politics appears every Sunday. Contact him at kblaum@timesleader.com.

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