Franklin’s Wise Words

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This July Fourth, it may be useful to consider the words of Benjamin Franklin when, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he recommended passage of the Constitution that the Convention delegates had hammered out. Not all of Franklin’s ideas were adopted, though some were. Not all of anyone’s ideas were adopted, likely. But, as Franklin said, “I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution.” The Constitution was not perfect, if for no other reason because it failed to address slavery. But it was the best that could be managed, and it created the means by which slavery would eventually be abolished. The alternative was no nation at all, or perhaps thirteen separate nations, or perhaps two nations, one North and one South. I don’t think the alternatives would have achieved a more perfect situation, and certainly not a more perfect union. Thirteen separate nations would have been easy pickings for world powers, in particular England, intent on re-possessing her losses in America (as she tried to do in the War of 1812, sometimes called “the Second American Revolution”), and two nations North and South would have created a political reality where there was no incentive to debate and address slavery or several other issues. No, I think what we got is the best we could get, considering the many factors involved, especially the regional disputes and personal preferences of the delegates.

The reaction of some to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, finding no right to abortion in the U. S. Constitution, has led some to insist that our democracy is over and there is no reason to celebrate the Fourth. This is ridiculous. The decision of the SCOTUS to return the question of abortion to the individual states is a demonstration of democracy, where the judicial branch of the federal government recognized the seizure by that same Court five decades ago of the states’ prerogative to determine state policy by the legislative process. Those who refuse to celebrate the Fourth because our nation is not perfect have decided to reject those very principles by which our union may be made more perfect.

In any case, again, it is worth our while, I think, to consider the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin at this time when our country is so fractured and polarized. May his wisdom regarding what may be expected of imperfect men in their attempt to create a more perfect union inspire us all to continue to work toward that day when the principles of our creed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” may be more perfectly reflected in our nation’s laws and culture.

Benjamin Franklin:

“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, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. 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. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. 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 (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administred. On the whole, Sir, I can not 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.”

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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