Benjamin Franklin Saves the Constitution in 1787

Excerpt from “Benjamin Franklin, Hero of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, How a Candle-Maker’s Son Helped Light the Flame of Liberty”, by Russell Freedman, pages 71-75, 2013.  Amazon.com $18.81  4/13/19.

[At the Constitutional Convention]

Franklin’s yearning for perfection was frustrated…when he attended the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. The Articles of Confederation, signed by the individual states in the early days of the Revolution, had proven too weak to hold the new nation together. The Continental Congress had called for the Philadelphia convention to draft a new and stronger constitution that would unite the states and meet the nation’s pressing needs. [Actually the Congress only called to amend the Articles of Confederation, not create a whole new constitution.]

Fifty-five delegates from every state except Rhode Island (which refused to attend) gathered in Philadelphia for sixteen weeks of speeches, debates, negotiations, and compromise as they discussed how best to govern themselves. [Mr. Freedman left out the heated arguments and threats to leave the convention.] At eighty-one, Franklin was the oldest delegate by far, twice as old as the average age of those in attendance….

The delegates met in the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall), where Franklin had served for so many years as an assemblyman. Since his gout and kidney stones made it painful for him to walk, he was carried to the daily sessions in a sedan chair he had brought from Paris-a chair balanced on long poles held aloft by four husky prisoners from the Walnut Street jail. Helped from his sedan chair, he took his seat every morning at one of the fourteen round tables in the East Room of the State House. And he attended faithfully, several hours a day for four months.

He listened attentively, but didn’t speak often. When he had something to say, he wrote out his speech and asked a fellow delegate to read it aloud, since he found it difficult to stand for any length of time. As always, he was in his element among small, informed groups, but he had never like to make speeches. “He is no speaker,” one delegate observed. “He is, however, a most extraordinary man, and tells a story in a style more engaging than anything I ever heard….and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of twenty-five.”

The delegates had plenty of tough issues to resolve. Their debates were heated and prolonged as they tried to balance the conflicting demands of large states and small ones. rich states and poor states, slave states and free states. The torrid weather in Philadelphia that summer didn’t help matters. Along with the stifling heat and humidity, giant flies and mosquitoes invaded the State House; they could bite right through the delegates long silk stockings.

Franklin worked to encourage a spirit of compromise. “We are sent here to consult, not to contend, with each other,” he said. Many of his own legislative proposals were rejected. The delegates listened to him respectfully, but they did not necessarily follow his advice. His main contribution was bringing opposing delegates together, allowing tempers to cool, and getting them to agree. [Bolding and underlining mine] “We are making experiments in politics,” he told a friend. “We must not expect that a new government may be formed…without a fault.”

The thorniest issue at the Constitutional Convention concerned the future of slavery in America. Many of the delegates were opposed to slavery. But delegates from the South, where plantations and an entire way of life depended on slave labor, threatened to walk out of the convention if the proposed constitution outlawed slavery. Bowing to what they viewed as political reality, the [Northern] delegates finally agreed to an uneasy compromise. The slave trade would be banned as of the year 1808. But the institution of slavery itself would be tolerated under the new constitution, each state deciding the issue for itself.

Throughout Franklin’s life, most whites in America had accepted slavery as a matter of course. Even in Philadelphia, a northern city, almost ten per cent of the population in 1760 was made up of black slaves. At one time, Franklin himself had owned slaves who worked as his household servants. But attitudes were changing, and by the time of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin had come to detest slavery, calling it “a practice that has so long disgraced our nation and religion.”

The constitution that the delegates finally agreed to sign was the result of many compromises, including on the issue of slavery. And just as Franklin did not expect perfection himself, he didn’t expect it in the art of government. When he…deliver[ed] some closing remarks, he paid tribute to the spirit of cooperation that had made the new constitution possible.

“I confess that there are several parts of this new constitution which I do not at present approve…But I am not sure that 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 “[my]” opinions even on important subjects….The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay attention to the judgment of others.”

Franklin doubted whether any convention could have agreed on a better document. “Thus I consent, sir,…to this constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” He urged his fellow delegates to join him in signing the document, “for our own sakes as part of the people, and for the sake of posterity.”

Franklin became the only Founding Father to sign all four of the documents that led to the creation of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the treaty of alliance with France, the peace treaty with England, and the Constitution of the United States.

The Constitution, which vests all power in “We the People,” has proved to be the most successful document of its kind ever written. It is the oldest written constitution still in use by any nation in the world, and we today are “the People” for whom it was intended.

As Franklin approached the end of his life, he turned to the one great issue that could not be solved by any compromise. In 1787, while the Constitutional Convention was still in session, he accepted the presidency of the first group in North America to work for the eradication of slavery-the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. Though his health was failing, he devoted himself to the society’s mission of emancipating slaves and helping them enter a free society.

In 1790, Franklin sent a formal petition to the new federal Congress, attacking slavery and asking that “the blessings of liberty’ guaranteed by the Constitution be granted “without distinction of color…to those unhappy men who alone in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage.” [This action almost precipitated the Civil War in 1790 instead of 1861.] The petition was rejected on the grounds that Congress had no authority to interfere in the internal affairs of the individual states. And it was denounced by Representative James Jackson of Georgia, who declared that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, and that troublemakers like Benjamin Franklin were a threat to the social order. Slavery in the United States would continue until America’s Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Franklin’s anti-slavery petition was his last public act. Two months later, he lay on his deathbed as friends and family members moved in and out of the room, saying their good-byes. Franklin reached out to take the hand of his grandson, his namesake Benny, whom he had taught to swim and had trained as a printer. We are told that he held Benny’s hand for a very long time.

That evening, April 17, 1790, Benjamin Franklin passed away at the age of eighty-four. He had told his mother once that when his life was over, “I would rather have it said, ‘He lived usefully’ than ‘He died rich.'”

Two centuries after Franklin’s time, we remember him as a printer, editor, and publisher; a community organizer; a scientist and inventor; a statesman, humorist, and philosopher; and an influential writer. His contributions to society include a library, a university, a fire company, a philosophical society, the lightning road, the Franklin Stove, and bifocal glasses. And he helped give birth to a new kind of nation, ruled not by a hereditary monarch but by “We the People.”

“He snatched lightning from the sky,” said the French statesman Jacques Turgot, “and the scepter from tyrants.”

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