What Franklin thought of the Constitution

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, oil painting (reproduction) by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940
The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, oil painting (reproduction) by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940 (Architect of the Capitol)

All summer long, a group of men huddled in a stifling hot room in Philadelphia (Madison almost passed out from the heat) to develop the framework for a government that would govern the newly independent states of America.

There was debate, and there was arguing. There were grounds on which some delegates were immovable—Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry refused to sign as there was no Bill of Rights in the original Constitution. And there were some issues that were so contentious they were glossed over with broad words—slavery was barely addressed even though 18% of the population was in bondage at the time (according to the 1790 census).

There were arguments about how the number of Representatives in the House should be determined, how treaties should be signed, how roads should be built, canals dug, tariffs weighed.

But by September 17, 1787, after four months of secret debate and compromise, an 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin closed the convention with these words:

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. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right — Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.”

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, 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.

2 thoughts on “What Franklin thought of the Constitution

  1. Wow! What a lesson that we can take away from these comments today in America. We have issues with administering within our Government today! Not that we don’t have the best way of life in my opinion than any other place in the world. We will have differences and not everyone will agree on every point, we can look to our own families for this lesson.

    We do at some point have to put our own pride and boastfulness aside for the betterment of all people and stand with each other, because this is the best of everyone’s ideas. America is the land of plenty, why don’t we all see how we complement and lift each other up! Instead of politics as usual and competing with everyone and tearing each other down!

    Times don’t change from history, we just have different actors all thinking their way is better and that we do it all ourselves. As we grow with new ideas, things grow and expand and get better, different, which ever your vantage point is. But without each other nothing happens. We all need each other and our Lord.

    When we forget these basics, we do become as Benjamin Franklin stated in this address like the Builder’s of Babel. Thank you for posting this, I wish I had the desire in my more youthful years to know more about our history. It sure would have made this walk in life much easier to understand comprehend and make contributions to this world we live in!

    1. Hi Edward,

      If you’d like to know more about the insights of the Founding Fathers on the Constitution, I encourage you to look at James Madison’s “Notes on the Debate in the Federal Convention” of 1787. Madison kept tedious notes that show just how lively the debate was over what should be (and shouldn’t be) in the Constitution. Here is a link to the notes: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/debcont.asp (please note this is not a National Archives site).

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