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Poor Richard's Almanack: Benjamin Franklin's Incredibly Popular Book of Aphorisms, Forecasts, and More
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“I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION was made up of young men, half under forty; Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania was eighty-two, twenty years older than anybody else there, and the most adept conciliator. Although his ideas for a plural executive and unsalaried officials were rejected, his was the compromise that made an amalgamation of large and small states possible: the states would be represented equally in the Senate and the people equally in the House.
Franklin was too infirm to deliver the speeches he wrote. On September 17, 1787, as the wrangled-over Constitution was set to be signed despite the misgivings of many of those present—lawyer James Wilson read Franklin's words in Independence Hall. The proceedings were secret, but within ten weeks copies were available in Boston. One of the leakers was Franklin himself, who sent "a Copy of that little Speech" to a printer friend there; it was reprinted widely, contributing—despite its doubtful tone—to the pressure toward ratification by the states.
The document produced by the delegates in Philadelphia has acquired the status of American scripture, its original copies viewed reverently and the intent of the founders in some passages hotly debated. A certain irony exists in the way the Constitution was introduced by Franklin: not great, but nothing better could be expected. In not overselling it, he helped sell it to his fellow doubters.
Mr. President, I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: 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. I is therefore that the older grow, the more aptI am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others in possession ed, as well as most sects in the unemen 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 therainy of tece between our two churches, in thesphe ions of the certainty of their doctrine, is, the Romish church 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 lite dispute with her sister, said, I don't know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody 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 I 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 if, and use his influence to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary elects and 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 and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that 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 our posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this constitution, wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and 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.