July 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm, by Carl

George Will was part of Ken Burns excellent series on Baseball. In there, at one point, Will compared our “American Democracy” to baseball. Now, realize that the Founders as a rule detested the notion of our government being a Democracy (as do I and I will explain this in more detail at another point). However, his good point in the little speech was that a government like ours thrives on compromise. You never get everything you want, but rather you have to engage in open, honest, sometimes frustrating debate over the issues.

Ben Franklin, the Founding Grandfather among the various “Fathers” and “Brothers” realized this idea clearly. By the time of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was 81 years of age and had been an active member at the Albany Congress, the First Continental Congress, the Second Continental Congress, the Quebec Negotiation Team, the France Minister Plenipotentiary which garnered the French alliance and a Member of the Revolutionary War Negotiating team with John Jay and John Adams to gain the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

By the time the long hot summer ended, the delegates who had remained to hammer out the second American government were not entirely pleased with the product. As is well known, several major compromises had to occur before the document could be finalized. Franklin had had several ideas shot down and as the lone voice with any friendliness towards Democracy, he certainly was not pleased with many aspects of our Constitution.

Still at the end, sensing the general frustration and determined to help the process along, he made this speech that should be required reading of any leader of any governmental job at any level:

I confess that I do not entirely approve 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. 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.

Most men, indeed as well most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. . . .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 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 separations, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting on 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 Partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects 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.(emphasis is Franklin’s)

Quoted from the Yale Editors of Franklin’s papers. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin For the specific paper, go to this link and then click on the materials from the unpublished works of 1787-88. There, you will see “From Benjamin Franklin: Speech in the Convention on the Constitution (unpublished) Mon, Sep 17, 1787.”

This speech is arguably one of the best in American history. We’ll unpack this further in the coming days, so for now, we’ll let Franklin’s thoughts be our last word–“the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.”