Benjamin Franklin and His Relevancy Today

I just completed Issac Walter Isaacson’s book “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” while commuting to and from work for the last few weeks. I’m very pleased that I took the time to learn more about Benjamin Franklin and his contributions to not only American society, but the world as a whole. He lived 84 years through some of the most important events that shaped our country.

I’ll keep this short and point out one speech he wrote that I feel is so relevant today. It has to do with openness, compromise, and listening to others. You, me, and our politicians can learn from his words.

Here is the context of this speech. Monday, September 17, 1787, was the last day of the Constitutional Convention. Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, one of the few Americans of the time with international repute, wanted to give a short speech to the Convention prior to the signing of the final draft of the Constitution. Too weak to actually give the speech himself, he had fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson deliver the speech. It is considered a masterpiece.

Mr. President

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 administered.

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.

4 Replies to “Benjamin Franklin and His Relevancy Today”

  1. Brett-
    You make me proud sir. Old Ben was a great man.
    -The gift of the Enlightenment that keeps on giving. I am on my way to DC in a few days to work at USAID for 6 weeks as a Disaster Ops Specialist. It should be interesting to study first hand the legacy of wise people.
    Give my best to Ethan and Laura.
    Mike Benefield

  2. Don’t forget his contribution to creating libraries! Quite the national institution, and I use it quite liberally for music, dvds, books, magazines, and many other things. All for free (well, they’re paid for by taxpayers). I know I’ve saved a few hundred dollars by borrowing DVDs at libraries instead of renting them.

    1. Indeed I do remember his contribution to creating libraries. Our family visits them at least twice a week for their programs or to check out books.

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