Greatest Compromises in History

The art of compromise is one of the most important skills a leader must learn. Compromise enables diverse groups of people to live and work together.

The best definition for compromise I have seen is: “a compromise is an agreement nobody likes that everybody can live with.” Thus, the greatest danger from America’s “winner-take all politics” is that it leaves no room for a true compromise.

Generally, when American politicians discuss compromise, what they really mean is: “I hope the other side rolls over and plays dead.” When the other side refuses to die, politics degenerates into gridlock because both sides view compromise as death.

Thus Americans could learn some potential solutions to our nation’s problems by studying history’s greatest compromises. Some of the greatest political compromises in history include:

The Edict of Nantes

In 1598, the Kingdom of France was on the verge of self destruction. The vast majority of of the population were devout Roman Catholics, however, there was a significant radical Protestant minority.

The religious divide created permanent civil war. Constant Catholic efforts to eradicate the Protestants led to fighting. The fighting created chaos, undermining government, law and order, and civil society. France was in danger of shattering into dozens of micro states.

King Henry VI came to the rescue with the Edict of Nantes. The Edict reestablished peace by recognizing Protestants as part of French society and giving French Protestants the means to protect themselves.

In particular, two letters of patent (amendments) to the Edict gave French Protestants fortresses to protect themselves from Catholic lynch mobs. The Edict restored peace and civility to France.

The Edict of Nantes gave the French the opportunity to establish a strong national government and a modern economy. Consequently, France prospered in the 17th Century and became the richest and most powerful nation in Europe.

By 1685 when the intolerant Louis XIV revoked the Edict, the French monarchy was powerful enough to crush all internal opposition. In contrast to France, Germany which had no Edict of Nantes collapsed into chaos and suffered the carnage of the Thirty Years War. Germany did not unite until the 19th Century.

The Glorious Revolution

In the 17th Century, Britain was in danger of cracking up as Germany had, or becoming an absolute monarchy using brute force to rule like France.

The various factions in British society, however, made a compromise that laid the foundations of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. The Compromise was the unwritten British Constitution that emerged during the Glorious Revolution.

The Glorious Revolution was a military coup in which Dutch monarch William of Orange overthrew King James II using a mercenary army. William had a claim to the British throne because he had married James’ Protestant daughter, Mary.

The compromise that saved the United Kingdom was a deal between William and Mary and various elements in British society. In exchange for the British crowns, William and Mary agreed not to interfere in internal politics. Instead, Parliament would govern the country, leaving William free to wage war on his arch-enemy French King Louis XIV.

In January 1689, William and Mary made the important compromise of acknowledging Parliament’s authority over them. The monarchs became citizens subject to British law. By acknowledging parliament as Britain’s ruling body, William and Mary opened the door to parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.

Importantly, the Glorious Revolution included the world’s first Bill of Rights or Declaration of Rights.  In particular, the Bill of Rights granted free speech, created an elected House of Commons, regular parliaments, free elections, and freedom of religion for all Protestants.

The Glorious Revolution saved the United Kingdom by defusing the constant class warfare between the middle class and the nobility that led to the English Civil War. William and Mary’s unwritten constitution made peace by giving both groups representation in Parliament.

To explain, the House of Commons represented the middle class, while the House of Lords gave nobles political representation. In the 19th Century, they extended the representation to the working class, Catholics, and Jews, and in the 20th Century to women.

Without the Glorious Revolution there may have been no British Empire, Industrial Revolution, Parliamentary Democracy, or American and French Revolutions. The success of Britain after the Glorious Revolution showed the world that political settlement without slaughter was possible and that democracy was a viable alternative to absolute monarchy.

One result of the Glorious Revolution was the French Revolution in which the people tried to remake France in Britain’s image.

The United States Constitution

When the Founding Fathers gathered at the Constitutional Constitution in 1789, they found their new nation contained fatal divisions.

In 1789, the 13 United States had two fatal divisions. First, slavery was the basis of the Southern States’ economies. Second, smaller state leaders feared large states such as Virginia and New York would dominate the new nation.

Led by James Madison, the Founders defused the divisions by writing some interesting compromises into the Constitution. First, they created the world’s first federal system with a two house national legislature: Congress.

Congress had two houses with equal powers that gave all states some representation. The Senate appointed by state legislature represented all states equally. The popularly elected House of Representatives gave larger states slightly more representation power because it had the power to write the budget.

Second, the Founders created a separate executive branch led by an elected president. Third, the Founders made the courts, or judiciary, independent of the legislative branch.

To explain, the Founders were trying to avoid the British example of an all powerful Parliament with control of the military and the budget, and the power to rewrite the Constitution.

Finally, the Founders moved the argument over slavery and race into the future. Note: in 1789 this was not a bad compromise because cotton was not yet a lucrative cash crop that made the South rich.

To explain, Eli Whitney had not yet invented the Cotton Gin, which made cotton growing profitable. To explain before the Gin, they had to process cotton by hand, an expensive and time-consuming proposition.

The Cotton Gin allowed Southern Planters to feed the Industrial Revolution’s insatiable demand for cheap cotton and become wealthy. Cotton Gins allowed Southerners to process enormous amounts of cotton quickly and cheaply.

In 1789, slavery was dying out in the North because it was uneconomical. Founders, including George Washington, felt the South could repeat the same process. The Emergence of King Cotton killed the dream and led straight to the Civil War. Thus, the American Civil War broke out because the Constitutional Compromise broke down.

The US Constitution gave the world federal government. This was a radical departure from the British and French solutions, where all powerful governments united the nation by crushing opposition.

Today federal systems function successfully in countries as diverse as India, Germany, and Russia. Similarly, the European Union is a federal system and even the United Kingdom is adopting a limited federal system. Federalism is an American invention.

Nelson Mandela Saves South Africa

In 1994 South Africa; like France in 1598, was on the brink of civil war. The end of apartheid gave everybody the vote, regardless of race.

South Africa’s racial divisions and first-past-the-post; or winner-take-all elections were fueling extremism and conflict. Under first-past-the-post there is one in winner in parliamentary elections and losers get nothing and have no reason to participate in politics.

White South Africans feared black supremacists could win election and strip them of all their rights and property. Black South Africans feared white racists could win election and restore Apartheid. Consequently, some South Africans were preparing for Civil War.

African National Congress Leader Nelson Mandela saved the day and South Africa by insisting on a parliament (National Assembly) elected by proportional representation and the party list system. Under proportional representation, each parliamentary district has multiple members.

Instead of one member of parliament, every party that gets a large percentage of the vote gets a member. For instance, if Conservatives get 45% of the vote, Labor gets 30%, and Greens get 25%, all three parties send members to parliament.

An interesting feature of South Africa’s system is the party list. Under a party list system, people vote for parties rather than individual candidates. Under this system, the winning party fills seats with members chosen by a list.

By insisting on proportional representation, Mandela prevented a race based civil war in South Africa. By giving everybody some representation, Mandela created a government nobody feared.

I think Americans can learn from Mandela’s achievement. The situation in America today resembles South Africa in 1994. To explain, some Americans, especially Christians, cultural conservatives, rural residents, blacks, and working-class whites, fear they could have no power, influence, or rights soon.

Consequently, those people refuse to make any concessions and fear the political sessions. Notably, some of them will use violence to keep power.

In 1994, a mob of 3,000 Neo-Nazis stormed the South African parliament to protect white rights. An incident that will remind many Americans of the 6 January 2021 Trump riot at the US Capitol.

The South African mob was trying to disrupt negotiations to create a constitution and share power with blacks. The Trump mob was trying to prevent the certification of Joe Biden (D-Delaware) as President. Many Americans view Biden as a threat because they see him as a secularist and an antiwhite president.

One way Americans could defuse the present political tensions in their country is to adopt some sort of proportional representation for Congress. There is much America could learn from these historical compromises. Only future history will tell if modern Americans can learn from history or find themselves doomed to repeat it.