Others saw them as cowardly traitors seeking to undermine the foundations of our system of government. Some in the anti-war movement took dissent beyond mere speech, urging soldiers and Marines to frag their officers. Violence, it seemed, did in fact solve some problems (even if one professed to abhor it). Two polar extremes, each animated by what to them seemed fundamental questions about the role of government, struggled to articulate their positions. The passion of those who hated and feared the Bush administration was matched by those who defended its actions. We were engaged in what - to us - seemed a titanic struggle to define the proper role and the legitimate authority of that government created in 1776 by men who themselves did not agree about a great many things.
A mere seven years later, Americans are still arguing about the role and legitimacy of the federal government. But the two parties do so from different sides and are motivated by different issues. Progressives, now that a Democrat occupies the Oval Office, are all in favor of a strong federal government with an assertive Executive branch. And conservatives of all stripes, now that we're out of power, fear that a strong federal government is in danger of extinguishing the freedoms we hold dear. Different freedoms, and different dreams.... Now it is conservatives who whisper of rebellion and armed resistance; of lack of consent.
These questions have faced every generation for over two centuries. They are not new to us, nor are our current discontents greater in kind or severity than the many follies and abuses that gave past generations ample cause for outrage. The old struggles divide us, still.
If I have one wish for this Fourth of July, it might be that we stop for a moment to contemplate our long history, considering both the great good and the equally great evils this nation has experienced. If we did not consider the governments of the past to be illegitimate when they made very great mistakes, by what rationale do we seek to undermine the legitimacy of our present government, however deeply we disagree with its policies?...
I'm not sure when compromise ceased being the quality that gave us our Declaration in 1776, the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and - when that minimalist framework proved insufficient to the task of governing a handful of former colonies - the Constitution in 1789 and become a threat to the principles outlined in them. The men who signed all three of these documents did not agree about a great many things. To secure their signatures and their consent to the greatest experiment in representative government the world had yet known, compromise was needed.
And if we hope to hold onto what our forebears bequeathed to us, we had better relearn the skills that made our way of life possible in the first place.I am not unsympathetic to the idea of compromise. Back in 2004 -- which I didn't take to be a referendum on the legitimacy of the nation, but on whether we would or would not surrender in Iraq and to al Qaeda -- I wrote the following:
In the next years, we must remember the 55 million [who voted for Kerry]. It may be that some of them can be won over, through argument or through example, or even -- on matters not of principle -- through compromise. Even when not, we must remember that they showed that America is their country too: no one can ever again claim to be backed by the "silent majority." That majority has now spoken, but it spoke on both sides.
We should remember that they felt all the passion and concern that we did ourselves, and found that doing everything they could only led to the defeat of their cause. That kind of defeat can weaken the Republic, which many of us are sworn to uphold. It weakens it by undermining faith and confidence in the institutions. We must take care to be sure they find fair hearing of their concerns in the institutions that conservatives now control. The government must serve them as well. We should take care to observe the tenets of Federalism, and not use the power of the Federal government to try and influence liberal states according to a general will. We should erect new walls in that regard, so that our disappointed neighbors can still live the lives they want to live in what is also their country.That's the kind of compromise I think is sustainable in this country, which is deeply divided on basic values. If we can't achieve that renewed Federalism -- if we continue to insist on using the vast power of the Federal government to force compliance out of the part of America that disagrees with us -- we will have war whether we want it or not.
Nor is this new. If we are to grant Cassandra's wish, and re-examine the way in which the nation advanced to its state of flourishing liberty, we will find only some few compromises -- and a great deal of uncompromising violence. Even where we see compromises, we see them in the context of threats of armed rebellion, secession and disunion. The Great Compromise arose because Southern and Northern states would not otherwise agree to be bound together. The Compromise of 1850, which agreed that we would remain half-slave and half-free, arose because otherwise the Southern states would leave the union entirely. It was granted only at the point of civil war.
If it were compromise that was at the root of liberty, we would have remained half-slave and half-free. It was Lincoln's uncompromising stance, and hundreds of thousands of dead, that resulted in liberty for the slaves. The ratification of the Reconstruction amendments was forced by military occupation. The withdrawal of that occupation was the carrot offered in return for Southern acceptance of a Republican presidency in the Compromise of 1877.
The late 19th century saw the rise of labor unions as a force in politics. The compromises they won were won through strikes and clashes with the US Army, whose main duty between the end of the Civil War and the first World War was suppressing unions. It was their willingness to keep fighting in the face of such suppression that compelled compromise.
Likewise, when desegregation of the schools was commanded by the Supreme Court of the United States, Arkansas called out its national guard in order to resist the command. It took the 101st Airborne to make that good. The history of desegregation -- not only in the South, but everywhere -- is marked with bombings, lynchings, terrorism, snipers, and blood. It was achieved only because the force brought to bear in its favor overwhelmed the force brought to bear against it. The compromise was the compromise of submitting to desegregation in return for an end to the pain.
The great lesson is that compromise comes only at the point of disunion and violence. If we have principles we are prepared to insist upon, we must be willing to contemplate -- and indeed, to prepare for -- disunion and even civil war.
That is not to disdain compromise, or to set it aside. It is, rather, the only way to achieve a compromise on such a basic and deeply-felt matter. It is the way we have always treated these things. Conflict is how liberty ever came to flourish at all.
I hope this will be of comfort to my dear friend Cassandra, to whom the murmurings of revolt on the right seem disconcerting and immoderate. These things do not spell the end of America or its liberty: they are the root of American liberty, and they have always been its nourishment. It is only through such mutterings, and sometimes far more than muttering, that our compromises have been achieved.
So take heart, and look to your arms. We may hope not to need them, but we dare not lay them aside. We must have the option of practical recourse to them if we are to compel the kind of compromise we need.