“Lincoln and the Art of Compromise” by Mark W. Harris

 First Parish of Watertown – February 10, 2013

 Call to Worship –  “Freedom” from Langston Hughes


Freedom will not come

Today, this year

Nor ever

Through compromise and fear.


I have as much right

As the other fellow has

To stand

On my two feet

And own land.


I tire so of hearing people say,

Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need freedom when I am dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.


Is a strong seed


In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom

Just as you.



Reading – from Abraham Lincoln – compilation –  “The Bulwark of our Liberty”


Sermon – Lincoln and the Art of Compromising by Mark W. Harris


            In the Public Garden in Boston there is a statue of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner, a Unitarian, was a Radical Republican during the Civil War period of American History arguing for the freeing of all those who were enslaved.  After one particularly strong anti-slavery speech in 1856, where he called one of the Senators from South Carolina a pimp for slavery, he was subsequently attacked on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks, the other South Carolina Senator, and beaten with a cane, and nearly killed.  My advisor in college wrote his dissertation on Preston Brooks, and so students heard endless tales about this famous incident. A recent book calls this event the crucial one to cause the Civil War.  While many events are characterized as “the” crucial one, we all know there was an evitable march towards conflict that could not be abated by political compromise. Sumner himself once said, “From the beginning of our history the country has been afflicted with compromise. It is by compromise that human rights have been abandoned.”

We certainly know this to be true.  There was compromise in the constitution over how to count slaves for the purposes of political representation.  There was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where Maine came in as a free state, and Missouri slave.  There was the Compromise of 1850 engineered by the famous Senators Clay and Douglas, where California became a free state, popular sovereignty was established in territories, and there was a provision for a harsher fugitive slave law.  As Sumner points out, compromise often meant the sacrifice of principles, freedom for the slave, at the expense of pacifying the slave states. In the wake of Daniel Webster’s conciliatory speech, Secretary of State Seward’s wife Frances said, “”The word compromise is becoming hateful to me. . . .  Every concession to Southern principles makes Henry advocate more strongly the cause he thinks is just.”  Do we stick to principles or compromise? Which shall it be??

The US Postal Service recently issued a commemorative stamp marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Many of us have an inaccurate memory of what this proclamation actually stated.  We may remember “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but of course the proclamation did not actually free anybody.  It was a symbolic act freeing those slaves who lived in the states that were rebelling, and since those states had formed a separate country and were at war with the Union, there was no actual freedom just yet.  Those slaves in the Border States remained enslaved.  Perhaps this reminds us of Lincoln’s uncanny ability to broker a middle path towards political ends, or perhaps it shows us that he was willing to sacrifice some degree of principle in order to attain a greater good down the road. This history came up during President Obama’s re-election bid.  At one point Obama responded to criticism from the Huffington Post that he was too much of a compromiser, and said  “If the Huffington Post had been around when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, its headline would have read ‘Lincoln sells out slaves.’ ”  Some might say he did sell out the slaves, especially if you happened to live in chains in Missouri or Maryland.  One columnist wondered if President Obama confuses means and ends in discussions of compromise. Does he elevate compromise to the level of a principle, rather than as a sometimes necessary tool in moving towards achieving principles?  Sometimes it has seemed like all he does is compromise and cannot stick by principles, and other times it feels as though the opposition never compromises at all, and so nothing is achieved except continual conflict.  Yet I wonder sometimes about the liberal response to the conservatives. Are we upset by their principles or by the zealous way in which they proclaim them?  Could we be more zealous?

We could argue forever about the role of compromise in today’s fractured political scene.  Compromise played a key role in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.  While the Emancipation Proclamation was a compromise, it was a critical first step towards eventual freedom, made the freeing of the slaves a goal of the war, allowed the recruitment of black soldiers, and paved the way to the 13th amendment. Many of you have seen the movie, “Lincoln,” which focuses on the political machinations involved in the passage of the amendment. At a critical point in the film Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican Senator. decides to moderate his views on racial equality to ensure the passage of the amendment.  One gains a good sense of Lincoln’s political abilities when he approves a mission by Francis Blair to negotiate with the South for peace in exchange for Blair’s support of the amendment. Lincoln keeps the Confederate envoys out of Washington when they come to meet with him, and thus is able to technically tell the truth when asked if there are envoys in the city ready to negotiate for peace. Thus there is no delay on the vote on the amendment, and it passes. Lincoln later meets with the envoys, but by then, it is too late. Slavery can never be restored.

While we may be convinced that Lincoln was an expert at political maneuvers, he also maintained a steady principle that the freedom won would not be sacrificed.  The viewpoints on compromise seem to run the gamut of opinion. When is it a violation of all we stand for, and when is it a positive good?  It may seem obvious from the foregoing that compromise is required for nation states to make progress, and those of us who are involved in marriages or long-term relationships know that it is compromise that allows the marriage to endure.  Yet some people consider compromise a sign of weakness or an acceptance of defeat, where we accept that we will never get what we want, and so we acquiesce.  Some will say that principles should never be compromised.  Gandhi once said, “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is surrender. For it is all give and no take.”

When do you need to give and when do you need to take? We must read the situation and try to discern whether we should compromise or not.  Our family lives often present ongoing conundrums about when to compromise.  One example of compromise in religious literature occurs with the famous story of Joseph in the book of Genesis.  Joseph is the favored son of Jacob, and even has a dream that confirms his superiority.  This is known as youngest child syndrome.  I know because I have it.  His brothers end up hating him, and decide they are going to kill him.  One brother, Reuben, hears of this plan, and offers a compromise.  Instead of killing him, he suggests they just throw him into a pit.  In this compromise he intends to return later, and bring Joseph back to his father.  But his compromise backfires.  The brothers sell Joseph to a passing caravan, which is just the same as death.  Reuben returns, but Joseph is gone. He mourns his compromise. The problem with the compromise is that Reuben should have done the right thing in the first place, and returned Joseph to his father. He thought he could get away with something less harmful, but his plan backfired.  In his effort to avoid confrontation, he tries to appease the brothers, but they don’t really listen anyway, and the situation gets out of control,. Can you always compromise now, and make it right later? Eventually the family is reconciled in Egypt where Joseph has become rich and famous in Pharaoh’s court, but in reality they never trust one another again.

We must each decide if we can eventually bring around those who are doing something wrong or what we disagree with.  Reuben saw things go worse, and he could do nothing about it.  This story teaches us the importance of standing up for our principles, and saying I just can’t go along with this.  Many times in our relationships it seems easier to go along with what our partner is doing or proposing because we would rather not confront them or fight about it.  But in those instances our partners may never know what we want.  To avoid a conflict how often do we go along to get along?  Reuben was afraid to stand up to his brothers, but his fear made things worse. Compromise in a marriage is essential.  If one partner spends, and the other saves, some neutral ground must be found.  Last week in joys and sorrows when Randy suggested that Andrea and I go look at this book collection and choose some volumes, I could only think that I am the collector of books.  And as much as Andrea loves literature, she would just as soon remove one book for every one I collect.  Beyond what we accumulate or buy, a relationship is a compromise on many, many things.  But it is always important that we each find ways to be happy in the context of those compromises, so that each can find some measure of pleasure and fulfillment.  Choosing something neutral may be a compromise, but it may be that no one ends up happy.  Yesterday, no thanks to the weather I conducted a marriage ceremony, where each partner is trying hard to embrace what the other loves – outdoor activities for one, and travel for the other.  The quote they found to reflect their marriage comes from Tolstoy. “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.  Perhaps this is way to see how we can learn from what the other loves, and not just be a reflection of dull compromise.  In the book, The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes writes about a character that had stopped caring. “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”   When we don’t want to be bothered, we do just go along.  I have sometimes quoted an experience in a group where a wife asked her husband his feeling about something, and he turned to her and said, “How do you want me to feel?”  He was ready to compromise his true principles, and say whatever his partner wanted him to say to avoid conflict.  This is when compromise becomes a destroyer of souls. Becoming a truly loving couple is learning what you are willing to compromise on, and what you are not; learning when to stand your ground, and when to give it up.

So when it comes to compromise we must look for the signs.  Sometimes our friend or loved one has an issue that is truly important to them, and we must give a little, and the same is true for us.  It is hard because we don’t always know, and even in retrospect, we might say Lincoln should have acted sooner, or Obama gave too much.  We may say that about ourselves.  In college I should have told my roommate sooner that smoking pot in our room was not something I could tolerate.  I had given too much, and couldn’t take it back.  No position is always right, but we each must measure when we give too much, and are really unhappy, or conversely when we take too much, and are being unfair. The other person’s perspective is not necessarily accurate, and we may need to say no to what they think is a compromise.  What we need to be sure of are the core beliefs we live by, and stick by those. We must stand by our central beliefs, because in love, our partners will hopefully respect those, and not try to make us compromise them to suit their needs.

James Russell Lowell once said, “Compromise makes a good umbrella, but a poor roof.”  Compromising and always giving in to what is expedient is not a core value.  We all need solid roofs to live by.  We all need to ask ourselves when am I giving up too much?  Every day of our lives we compromise something.  We make a choice for one thing, and not another.  I may agree to something in the worship service because it is important to another staff person or a member.  But if it violates what I believe are my core principles about worship, I will say so. For example, this morning in the Finance Committee meeting someone suggested we play the final Jeopardy music  (hum it) as members were contemplating what they would pledge to the church on our commitment Sunday. This suggestion somehow exceeded my willingness to compromise! I may compromise with my children, my spouse, and my co-workers.  We each give up something to make a marriage or a job or a family work in harmony, but our principles can be lost when we compromise too much, and then we may reach the point where we no longer care.  Opportunities come and go; it is up to you, the individual, to make the best decision for yourself whether now is the time to seize it, or if it can wait.  Is it a roof or an umbrella?  Let me close with a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Once there were four students in Japan who were studying meditation at a temple. They agreed that they wanted to observe seven days of silence.  This was the principle they adopted to learn meditation. On the first day, they were all silent through breakfast and morning prayers, and even as the afternoon stretched towards evening.  Soon their dinner was set out for them as the evening shadows began to fall.  It became darker and darker.  The caretakers of the temple had failed to turn on the lights.  They were silent, but soon were eating in the dark. They could barely see what was in front of them Finally, one of them could stand the darkness no longer, and shouted, “Turn on the lights.”  A second student, who was surprised by this outburst, said, “We are not suppose to say a word.”  Hearing this, a third remarked, “You two are stupid. Why did you talk?  Now there was only one left who had not violated the principle, but he concluded by saying, “I am the only one who has not talked.”  Once one gives in, it is human nature to follow.  They all compromised.  If the first one had followed the principle of silence and trusted that the lights would go on, he might not have needed to compromise in the first place.  Principles are the foundation, or compromise does become your end, and not your means.  As Lincoln himself once said when a punitive plan for reconstruction was proposed, when he planned to be magnanimous: “I must keep some standard of principle fixed within myself.” May the principles we live by give us faith that light will shine in our lives when we stick with love and trust.

Closing Words – from Ralph Waldo Emerson

“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.”