Benjamin Franklin’s Final Words

As our 2012 U.S. Presidential election draws near, and as differing political opinions continue to amplify to deafening levels, please allow me to share these words of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin. Although the single-phrase maxims of our Founding Fathers are oft quoted, many of us are not familiar with perhaps the most important speech ever composed by one of the greatest leaders our country has ever known.

During the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia to draft a governing document for our fledgling nation. Given all the differing opinions among the Framers of the Constitution during that tumultuous time, the process was plagued with painful, heated debates, consisting of political arguments to the likes of which we may never be able to fully comprehend. And yet, after months of deliberation, on 17 September 1787, after the final draft of the Constitution was read, Benjamin Franklin rose from his seat and offered these final words of wisdom, humbly acknowledging the importance of compromise as our guiding principle upon which all political discourse should be rooted.

The following video is a reading of this speech, the transcript of which is reproduced below. Today, as political gridlock continues to plague our nation, please take a few minutes to listen and to reflect on these long-lost words. Imagine for a moment this weary voice of desperation, rising from the ashes of debate, in the heat and dust of the day…

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 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 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 infallibilityand to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

~Benjamin Franklin
Philadelphia, 1787

After these words were spoken, on 17 September 1787, the Framers set aside their differences for a moment, and the motion to sign the Constitution prevailed.

Thus, our great Republic was born.

My friends, let us vow to never forget the lasting impact of these words. Let us resolve to fulfill our duty as citizens of this great country by not only going to the polls to vote on Election Day, but by also actively participating in a political discourse that is based on humility and compromise – because compromise is that noble principle that has the power to transcend even the most bitter of political foes. And so, as Americans, in these coming days and beyond, let us remember that principle of compromise – that as from it we arose, so by it must we continue to sail our magnificent Ship of State.

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