Frankie Anderson tells the stirring story of how Benjamin Franklin mediated a stalled Constitutional Convention TWICE and helped the Constitution become the law of the land, and the admiration of the world. On September 17th the Constitution will have provided a fouindation of liberty to Americans for 224 years. The Report Card will profile each of the 39 signers of the Constitution starting on September 17th. (editor)
Benjamin Franklin and the Two Critical Periods at the Convention by Frankie Anderson
The U.S. Constitution was signed on September 17th, 1787 and submitted to a free people for ratification. The Constitution was effective June 21, 1788 when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. The young United States had fought and won the American Revolution; then came “The Critical Period”, 1783-1789.
Summed up, The Critical Period was defined by heavy war debts (the Founding Fathers remained responsible for the war debts: see Article VI, ¶.1), high prices, devalued money, internal disunion and a weak, rather a non-existent central government. John Jay, who would become the 1st Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court under President Washington, wrote a letter to Washington in 1786 and said, ” I am uneasy and apprehensive, more so than during the war”. 1
Some [in the American Army] even called for George Washington to be crowned king- of America! (A man of lesser character would have supposed that to have been his just reward for having led the nation in the successful Revolution.) But Washington was not a man of lesser character and writing to Colonel Lewis Nicola, on May 22, 1782 Washington expressed his ardent disapprobation of the idea: “With great surprise and astonishment I have read the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations …such ideas as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable;…Let me conjure you, if you have any regard for your County, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, banish these thoughts from your Mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the Like Nature. With esteem I am.” 2
But there were Two Critical Periods during the Constitutional debates that our generation knows very little about which almost took the life from the Constitution before it was born. The elder statesman and sage of the Convention, Ben Franklin saved us during these Periods. (Benjamin Franklin, among other things, is distinguished for having signed both the Declaration of Independence & the Constitution.)
The 1st Critical Period during the Convention came on June 28, when after weeks of deliberations (the Convention had opened with a quorum May 25, 1787) the issues of representation, a second legislative body, etc., almost brought the Convention to its end. Dr. Franklin submitted this stirring and candid remedy to their situation:
“Mr. President, the small progress we have made after four of five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings reasonings with each other-our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes-is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have running about in search of it. We have gone back to the ancient histories for models of government and examined the different forms of those republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern states all around Europe but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.”
“In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark, to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto one thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding. In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better that the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and byword down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war, and conquest. I, therefore, beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in the service…”3
“Mr. Randolph proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to the measure that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on the Fourth of July….and thenceforward prayers…be read in the convention every morning. Mr. Franklin seconded the motion…”3
Six days later, on the 4th of July, in Philadelphia, a prayer was delivered in the Reformed Calvinistic Church by Rev. William Rogers, the following is an extract: “As this is a period, O Lord, big with events impenetrable by any human scrutiny, we fervently recommend to thy fatherly notice that august body, assembled in this city, who compose our federal convention... that the United States of America may form one example of a free and virtuous government, which shall be the result of human mutual deliberation, and which shall not, like other governments… spring out of mere chance or be established by force. May we trust in the cheering prospect of being a country delivered from anarchy, and continue, under the influence of republican virtue, to partake of all the blessings of cultivated and Christian society.” 4
The 2nd Critical Period was September 17, 1787. After the months of deliberations, the resulting Constitution displeased many of the deputies. The new Constitution needed the delegate’s signatures before it could be submitted to the States. Ben Franklin broke the silent hesitation when he handed his speech to Mr. Wilson (Mr. Franklin was too weak to speak). “Mr. President: I confess that there are several parts of the 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 subjects, which I once thought I was right…The older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. In theses sentiments, sir, agree to this Constitution with all its faults if they are such because I think a General Government necessary for us-….and believe this is likely to well-administered for a course of years and can only end in despotism…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 interest, and their selfish views. From such an assembly, can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this Constitution approaching so near as perfection as it does… Thus, I consent to this Constitution, because…I am not sure it is not the best…” He then moved that the Constitution be signed and offered this form: “Done in Convention by the unanimous consent of the states present, the 17th of September etc...” The delegates then proceeded to sign the Constitution. (Of the 42 present, 39 would sign the document.) 3
Each individual contribution to our American Constitutional Convention, notwithstanding, Ben Franklin’s role was truly remarkable. One historian/author wrote of him, “Ben Franklin, whose pronounced personality, unquestioned honesty of purpose and broadly applicable philosophy have written his name indelibly on the roll of the famous men the world over…” 5
Today, it has become trendy, respectable & Politically Correct to malign, berate and denigrate the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Personally, after researching thousands of pages of documents and letters of American history, I stand in opposition to such misinformed and dangerous governmental and political sentiments. Benjamin Franklin is only one the illustrious Fathers (and Mothers) who decided to risk everything for America’s posterity & their perpetual freedom.
We remain ever indebted: Thank you, Dr. Franklin!
Madison’s last recorded words at the Convention were those spoken by Benjamin Franklin: “The Constitution being signed by all the members except Mr. Randolph, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Gerry, who declined giving it the sanction of their names, the convention dissolved itself by adjournment. Whilst the last members were signing, Dr. Franklin, looking toward the president’s chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. ‘I have often in the course of this session, with the vicissitudes [changes & unexpected difficulties] of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that sun behind the president without being able to tell whether is was rising or setting sun, but now, at length, I have the happiness to know it is a rising, not a setting sun.’”
1. The Critical Period of American History, John Fiske, ©1888
2. George Washington/ A Collection, compiled & edited by W.B. Allen, ©1988
3. To Secure These Blessings, Saul K. Padover, ©1962; this is a published record of Madison’s Note on the Convention. The Notes were kept secret
and published 50 years after Madison’s death.
4. The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of The United States, B.F. Morris, ©1864
(B F. in the author’s name was for Benjamin Franklin.)
5. Washington, Joseph Dillaway Sawyer