Today in History: Benjamin Franklin Urges Adoption of the Constitution with a Warning
On this date in 1787, James Wilson delivered a speech written by Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the Philadelphia Convention. The speech urged the adoption of the Constitution despite Franklin’s reservations.
In the opening words of the speech, Franklin laments that “there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve.” But he left himself some wiggle room to change his mind, adding, “I am not sure I shall never approve them.”
Franklin didn’t talk – at that point – about any structural problems he had with the Constitution. Delegates were already well-aware of his areas of concern, such as his warning on June 4th that “The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
But he did express his chief worry — that the people wouldn’t do their part to support it. His words were eerily prophetic.
“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.”
Franklin understood human nature. He suspected the government created by the Constitution would eventually fail. But not because of any specific structural defect that may exist in the document itself. He said that the Constitution would be “well administered for a course of years.”
But he predicted it would go off the rails if the people did not do their job in keeping that government within its limits. At that point, it would become incapable of operating under anything other than despotism.
Franklin wasn’t alone in his concerns about the people holding the government within its constitutional limits. Roger Sherman argued during the ratification debates that no document “ever yet bound the supreme power longer than the honey moon of a new married couple, unless the rulers were interested in preserving the rights.”
George Washington made a similar observation years earlier, saying “if their Citizens should not be completely free & happy, the fault will be entirely their own.”
Despite his concerns, Franklin pushed for the adoption of the new Constitution.
“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.”
Ending the speech, Franklin urged others to follow his lead.
“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.”
As Michael Boldin noted in a podcast on the speech, for Franklin, “ultimately it would be up to the people to defend their own constitution and their own liberty.”
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