Franklin and the Constitution

We think now of the Constitution of the United States as foursquare and tough and flexible and enduring. We have lived under it all our lives. But in September 1787 the Constitution was a new and yet untried scheme of government. The men gathered in Independence Hall in Philadelphia had been working on it for four months. There had been quarrels that almost broke up the Convention. These were all sorts of men, from all parts of the country: New Englanders, Southern plantation owners, Pennsylvanians. Government, to each one of them, meant compromise, conflict, security, liberty — in many varying degrees.

On this morning the final reading of the Constitution had just ended. The high, historic room was silent.

The tall, grave man in the president’s chair on the dais was George Washington of Virginia. Above his head, on the high back of his chair, a rising sun was painted.

On the floor the oldest member of the Convention rose to his feet. His merry blue eyes looked out through the bifocal glasses that he himself had invented. This, of course, was Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia. And of Paris. And of London. And of the World. The time had come to sign the Constitution. Yet there were some in that hall who, even then, could not tell what action they would take. Franklin, facing this room full of famous men, rallied them as soldiers on the fighting line.

George Washington recognized the delegate from Pennsylvania, and Franklin, standing, let his greatest speech be read for him by young James Wilson, also of Pennsylvania:

Mr. President: 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 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 . . . . 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, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded, like those of the builders of Babel . . . . Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die . . . . I hope therefore that for our own sakes, as part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution . . . . wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavours to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of this 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.

While the delegates were signing, Franklin looked at the sun painted on the back of the President’s chair. And he said:

I have often, in the course of the session, looked at that sun behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.


~~from American Scriptures by Carl Van Doren and Carl Carmer