Ben Franklin and the Constitution: Part 1

George Will was part of Ken Burns' excellent series for PBS, Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. At one point, Will compared our "American Democracy" to baseball. Now, realize that the Founders as a rule detested the notion of our government being a Democracy (as do I and I will explain this in more detail at another point). However, his point in the clip was that a government like ours thrives on compromise. You never get everything you want, but rather you have to engage in open, honest, sometimes frustrating debate over the issues.

Ben Franklin, the Founding Grandfather among the various "Fathers" and "Brothers" realized this idea clearly. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was 81 years of age and had been an active member at the Albany Congress, the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress, the Quebec Negotiation Team, the France Minister Plenipotentiary which garnered the French alliance and a Member of the Revolutionary War Negotiating team with John Jay and John Adams to gain the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

As the long hot summer ended, the delegates who had remained to hammer out the second American government were not entirely pleased with the product. As is well known, several major compromises had to occur before the document could be finalized. Franklin had had several ideas shot down and as the lone voice with any friendliness towards Democracy, he certainly was not pleased with many aspects of our Constitution.

Still at the end, sensing the general frustration and determined to help the process along, he made a speech that should be required reading of any leader of any governmental job at any level. Let's see if we can unpack some of what Franklin said those many years ago. Franklin started by honestly expressing that he didn't fully like what was written:

I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

-Ben Franklin, "From Benjamin Franklin: Speech in the Convention on the Constitution (unpublished) Mon, Sep 17, 1787

After the many hot days of debate and frustration, Franklin realized that the convention was in danger of undoing all its hard work by infighting. Worse, as we shall see, he worried that they might split and upon returning home, compromise their effort by publically complaining about whatever issues each had privately about the new Constitution.

Franklin thus spoke these words that our current (and any future) leaders would do well to hear. Note that he starts by admitting that he personally doesn't like the document. Such an honest admission helps set up the direction of his speech. He is NOT going to use the fact that he isn't pleased against the document. Rather, even though he is saying "this is not the document I would have created were I working alone," he is going to openly state his support.

Why? Because his 81 years had given him enough time to learn the lesson that often those that disagree with you may know something of the issue. As I teach my students, a true critical thinker realizes that those on the other side of an issue are not "stupid" or "dumb" or "idiots." Typically the lead voices of a divide have thought through their opinion very well. Usually, in the case of politics, they are not putting for a plan in order to HARM the country, but rather something they truly believe to be worthy. It may not be, but they think it so. That should suggest to those on the other side that they should strive to hear well the other opinion. So often today there is little actual listening. I think that I, like Franklin, have learned that I do not know everything and do find my position being tweaked due to "better information or fuller consideration"

Furthermore, Franklin lays out a truth that would have been a great aphorism for Poor Richard's Almanack --"It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others."

Would that all learn this proverb and apply its wisdom to their lives. Certainly it would be great for any political leader to apply this notion.

Carl E. Creasman Jr is a Professor of History at Valencia College in Orlando, FL.