Benjamin Franklin’s Speech on Signing the Constitution

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A woman to Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention:

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”

  Benjamin Franklin “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

September 17 of this week was the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on  September 17, 1787 at the close of the Convention.  The speech of Benjamin Franklin on this occasion has always struck me as being chock full of wisdom.  Here is the text of his address:

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.

3 Responses to Benjamin Franklin’s Speech on Signing the Constitution

  • Thank you, Donald! Statesmen like that are sorely needed today.

  • It is worth recalling that several of the Founding Fathers expressed grave reservations about the Constitution.

    Washington that at one period of the deliberations the Constitution promised to satisfy his ideas, but that the great principles for which he contended had been changed in the last days of the convention. He meant the law, which required a majority of two-thirds in all those measures, which affected differently the interests of the several States. He said “that he did not like throwing too much into democratic hands.”

    “It is my own opinion,” said Hamilton, “that the present government is not that which will answer the ends of society, by giving stability and protection to its rights, and it will probably be found expedient to go into the British form.” “A dissolution of the Union, after all, seems to be the most likely result.” Like Washington, he was suspicious of democracy, “There are certain conjunctures when it may be necessary and proper to disregard the opinions which the majority of the people have formed. There ought to be a principle in government capable of resisting the popular current. The principle chiefly intended to be established is this, that there must be a permanent will.”

    Jefferson, by contrast, was a Jacobin, pure and simple – “Every people may establish what form of government they please; the will of the nation being the only thing essential. I subscribe to the principle that the will of the majority, honestly expressed, should give law. I suppose it to be self-evident that the earth belongs to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights in it. No society can make a perpetual Constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. Every Constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of thirty-four years.”

    The wonder is that men of such different principles should have reached an agreement at all.

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