Happy Birthday: Benjamin Franklin and the Constitution

Happy Birthday: Benjamin Franklin and the Constitution

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Happy Birthday to Benjamin Franklin, colonial Renaissance Man and possibly one of the most important Founding Fathers

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffrein Duplessis/Wikicommons

SAN JOSE, January 17, 2015—Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, who in his time, was recognized as a colonial Renaissance Man and possibly of one of the most important Founding Fathers. He could have served as an unofficial president of the United States. In the present day in January, many Americans are anticipating a three-day weekend as they celebrate or honor the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this coming Monday. The downside of such birthday sentiments for a great man is that they overshadow Franklin’s birthday.

Born into a humble and large family on January 17, 1706, Franklin got his initial start as a printer in his brother’s print shop and newspaper in Boston. This foundation served as a basis for his industriousness and provided a livelihood that served him well many times throughout his younger days. He eventually outgrew such a beginning as he began to delve into almost anything that caught his interest.

Franklin was a renowned polymath, and became a successful printer in his own right, but also an entrepreneur and a businessman, a scientist and inventor, a meteorologist, a musician, a leading author, a librarian, a humorist, a philanthropist and a philosopher, postmaster, a political theorist and civic activist, an economist, and a diplomat and statesman. Sadly, Americans have never honored Franklin as they have done for others less remarkable.

Benjamin Franklin is not easily remembered for all of the incredible things he did, or for his service to his people and his country as a determined patriot for most of his adult life. A little known fact about Benjamin Franklin is that of all the Founding Fathers, he was the only person to sign all four of the founding documents that gave birth to the United States of America.

In 1776, Franklin was on the committee suggested by John Adams and established by the Continental Congress to write out a declaration of the intent of the colonists with regard to Great Britain. Although Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft, Franklin added his two cents in the revision of the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin also played a significant role in arranging the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, which brought French loans and troops when the struggling colonies were fighting for independence. In addition, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Peace between England, France and the new United States in 1782. In one of his last official public activities, which happened to be one of the most important, was to attend the Constitutional Convention as he urged the delegates to sign the document giving birth to the new nation.

Even at the ripe old age of 81, Franklin was still serving his country. Although he was carried into the sessions and placed in his chair, and even though he slept through much of the boring bantering, he attended the arguments that formed the foundation for the Constitution. He could sense the concern over the words and content of the document, but his concluding remarks actually helped to encourage the other delegates to sign the historic document.

Franklin was the oldest delegate at the convention, if not the wisest, and his words had a great impact upon his colleagues. However, of his many concerns with the document that was hammered out in the hot summer months of 1787, he was especially concerned with a lack of reference to God as the Declaration of Independence had so eloquently linked the quest for freedom to a connectedness to the Creator.

It seems uncharacteristic of Franklin as he was not considered a religious man. But, as he grew a bit wiser in his old age, Franklin developed a deeper faith. At the Convention, was concerned about the absence of any reference to God and made clear his perspective: “I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God Governs the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it possible that an empire can rise without His aid?”

One of the most important statements he made came on Monday, 17 September, the last day of the gathering of delegates as they deliberated on signing the document. Franklin was actually too weak to stand and offer his speech, so he asked James Wilson to deliver it. It is good to read the entire speech, but among other words that he shared with his fellow patriots he confessed:

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present  approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: 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 to pay more respect to the judgment of others…

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and   believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a   better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices,   their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies… Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.

Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution… and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

Franklin, in recommending the Constitution to his fellow delegates, also gave all Americans over time a reason to consider its value. This effort of Franklin was in essence a way of giving his blessings to the new government, which many were unsure of at that point in time. Despite the faults when compared to other governments, the ideals of the Founders represented the best intentions in creating a government of the people. Yet, such an effort to create a “more perfect Union,” Franklin perceived in his wisdom that it was not the document, but the adherence to and the administration of the ideals in the document that would perpetuate the government of the people.

There is a famous story about Franklin recounted by Walter Isaacson in his book on Benjamin Franklin that after the Constitutional Convention a woman named Mrs. Powel approached him and asked “‘What type of government have you delegates given us?’ To which he replied, ‘A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.’”

It is in this day and age that many Americans are truly concerned whether the nation can stand as a Republic. In considering Franklin’s remarks, Americans may want to re-examine the life and legacy of old Ben Franklin. Certainly his wisdom can speak to us from the cornerstones of our past, and the people should begin to hold American leaders accountable specifically with regard to restoring the “goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors.” The people can make the difference in restoring America to its greatness as intended in the Founder’s ideals.

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