SAN JOSE, Calif., January 17, 2016 — Today is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. Americans do not celebrate it officially as a major holiday, nor is it recognized in any way. Yet in his own time, Franklin was recognized as a Renaissance Man, and may very well have been one of the most important of all the Founding Fathers.
In his 2003 biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson declares that Franklin stood out as “the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become.” He has never been considered a prophet, but he left a prophetic warning that may contain significant meaning for the United States today.
Franklin’s prophecy came during one of the most important addresses he ever made. On the last day of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates had still not signed the document. Franklin was too weak to stand to speak, so he asked James Wilson to deliver his comments for him:
“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 …
“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.
“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.”
Franklin went on to fully commend the Constitution to his fellow delegates. He urged each delegate to “doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.” All but three delegates came forward to sign the document.
“… can only end in despotism … when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” Was this Franklin’s prophecy of the inevitable outcome of the human efforts to obtain a “more perfect union” or ideal government?
Rapid changes in the nation in the past decade show the tell-tale signs of the fundamental corruption Franklin and the other Founding Fathers feared. The portents of a creeping tyranny aren’t that hard to recognize. Franklin explained that “much of the strength & efficiency of any government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends … on the general opinion of the goodness of the government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors.”
Many Americans are disgusted by the lack of “the goodness of the government.” Even President Obama in his State of the Union address admitted that “one of the few regrets of my presidency—that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. There’s no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better…”
The irony is that he used an important address on the state of the nation in a divisive, partisan manner. He could not help it. It was typical of his administration and the opposite of good government.
In this election year, Americans need to ask themselves whether they can truly see “wisdom” or “integrity” in those who want the presidency or in those hoping to become elected representatives. In the recent GOP debate, it was clear that several of the top contenders for the Republican nomination have a polished stage presence and appeal to what many Americans want to hear. But the back-and-forth sparring between the senators made clear why Congress has stagnated and “the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.”
The rancor within the GOP was in the open on stage, but less open is the bitter divisiveness between the two major parties behind the scenes in Washington.
In this this election year, Americans need to ask themselves whether they truly see “wisdom” or “integrity” in the “governors.” In the GOP, the senators have attacked the governors over their records, and vice-versa. The media outlets that stage the “debates” love to host the fireworks. According to one FOX analyst, it is not about having a real debate, it is really about who gets the best or most one-liners.
That may help the ratings and demonstrate cleverness of a candidate—or the cleverness of campaign staff writers—but it cannot be equated with wisdom. Even intelligence should not be confused with wisdom, though we hope that all of the candidates are at least intelligent.
In 2016, Americans could do much better than politics as usual. It is obvious to those who have paid attention to recent changes in the United States that the state of affairs that Ben Franklin and other Founding Fathers feared is close at hand.
There is a famous story about Franklin, recounted in Isaacson’s book, 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.’” Americans today should seriously consider how close we are to losing it.
We need to heed the wisdom of the Founders, from across the chasm of time, to demand wisdom from those who would be our leaders. We must choose only leaders with integrity. Some might repeat the words of Lincoln as if they understood them, but those words ring hollow when they don’t match deeds. That is not integrity.
In this election year, Americans should seriously ask whether they will again settle for someone less than a leader with the “gifts of Lincoln.” The prophetic warning of Franklin should ring in our ears. The outcome of the 2016 election will determine whether we are truly a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”