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Ben and the Constitution.


This story concerns a senior citizen who, in his 70s and 80s, helped to establish a new nation. It is a true story; the new nation was the United States of America. The senior citizen was a retired Philadelphia printer. If you forget what he looked like, you can find his picture on a half-cent stamp or a $100 bill--whichever is most handy.

Ben Franklin observed his 81st birthday on January 17, 1787. He had just been elected president of the Pennsylvania commonwealth, and the state assembly had also named seven delegates to the coming federal Constitutional Convention.

Franklin was not one of those seven delegates. True, the federal convention was extremely important, but dozens of younger men, much more ambitious than old Dr. Franklin, were expected to attend. Chief among those younger leaders was Franklin's distinguished friend of more than 30 years, Gen. George Washington. Enjoying a public esteem very close to public worship, Washington would likely preside over the convention in May at the statehouse.

Then came disconcerting news. The general had told friends that he did not plan to attend. His rheumatic shoulder might be disabled by the toilsome four-day horseback journey from Mount Vernon. Who else was of sufficient national stature to lead so fateful a convention?

Only six weeks before the convention was to start, the Pennsylvania Assembly had added Franklin's name to its original delegation. Now, in case Washington could not come, another leader of national distinction was ready. Franklin would be by far the oldest delegate present, but he was, as usual, available, in line with his own advice about public service--never request, never refuse, never resign.

On Sunday, May 13, the day before the meeting, Washington, having decided to take part after all, cantered in a small parade along Philadelphia's welcoming streets. With Franklin's enthusiastic support, Washington was elected to the chair. Ben Franklin thus became just another delegate among 55 meeting through four hot summer months, at least five hours a day, six days a week, to confront the challenge of national survival.

The usual accounts of Franklin's part in the convention might lead one to conclude that he was old and feeble, communicating with other delegates only by short written speeches--which other delegates had to read for him--and unable to walk or even to stand unaided, routinely honored but rarely heeded, useful only because of his international prestige, a jocund, ineffective eminent Methuselah in a sedan chair.

Only one of these conclusions is undeniable. Franklin was, indeed, old. But he was not dead. This lively old man attended the convention more faithfully than most of his younger colleagues.

He did own a sedan chair, but his daily exercise was walking to the statehouse sessions.

To save time on the floor, he did write some of his speeches, but he spoke extemporaneously when the situation required.

Although some of his ideas, like those of other delegates, were ignored or rejected, more than 70 percent of all proposals suggested or supported by Franklin were adopted.

His usefulness was, indeed, augmented by his well-earned international renown, but his agile mind held an iron determination that the meeting must agree on a lasting document that would meet public approval.

Quite apart from advanced years, however, Franklin carried several handicaps into the convention. For example, most of his colleagues shared one vivid experience Franklin lacked: service as officers in the Continental Army. Franklin's wartime duty was to secure in Paris the money and manpower essential to a military victory by others. He was thus excluded from the exuberant shared memories incident to a veterans' reunion.

He was also separated from the others by his long absences from the country. In 1787, out of the preceding three decades, Franklin could count about 16 years as a colonial agent in London, 9 years as an American representative in Paris, and only 5 years at home. Thus, if he looked at the growing list of delegates due in Philadelphia, he would see the names of a few old friends and many new names known to him, if at all, by reputation or rumor. As he himself noted, "I have been so long abroad as to be almost a Stranger in my own Country."

He was unlike the other delegates also in his education, occupation, and background. The experiences of tutors, academies, and college student life that other delegates had enjoyed were to Franklin entirely unknown. His formal schooling lasted less than two years. Wide reading and intellectual discipline made him the best-educated man at the meeting, but he was also the least schooled.

The activities involved in managing a large plantation--or a busy legal practice--were not in his experience either. He was simply "B. Franklin, printer," almost the only delegate who had made his living in a skilled trade.

Facing such difficulties, Franklin, as president of Pennsylvania, might have served the convention only in a ceremonial and perfunctory manner. He did not use that escape.

On the affirmative side he helped to set a brief period of naturalization for foreign-born officeholders, to define treason narrowly and thus make dissent more secure, to subordinate state laws to the provisions of national treaties, and to provide for the impeachment and removal of federal officials, including the president.

On the negative side, but equally important, Franklin opposed an arbitrary and all-inclusive executive veto on legislation. The convention at length adopted the override provisions followed today. He objected also to constitutional requirements of property ownership for voting in national elections and for holding national office. He could not approve a constitution that prescribed rule by a landed oligarchy--and this view ultimately prevailed.

Franklin did suffer defeats. One defeat arose from his long aversion to growing rich at public expense. Thus, when the debate turned to the financial compensation of senators, Franklin remarked that, because many of the younger delegates would probably become senators, they should avoid even the appearance of carving out lucrative places for themselves. A motion to pay senators no salary produced a close vote but lost, 6-5.

Franklin also argued that the president should be paid only for the expenses he incurred as a result of his service. He urged that the salaries of judges be flexible if the demands on their time increased. For representatives, he managed to get compensation changed from "liberal and fixed" to just "fixed."

In the light of 200 years of expansion in the pay, pensions, and perquisites of public servants and their heirs, dependents, descendants, and friends, it is difficult to ignore Franklin's repeated warnings about the escalation of rewards, especially for officials who must affect their own incomes by the budgets they control, the laws they enact, and the acquisitiveness they sometimes indulge.

In addition to his important proposals regarding the text of the Constitution, Franklin performed another great service. He had discovered, before many of the other delegates were born, that to accomplish much in human relations, one must often engineer a compromise.

The first half of the meeting was marked by acrimonious debate between the small states and the large states on representation in the Congress. Amid repeated tie votes, threats to walk out, and proposals to adjourn the meeting in deadlock, despair, and dudgeon, Franklin raised an insistent voice of reason. In an assembly of fluent, opinionated men, mostly lawyers, of sarcasm, stubbornness, and sulks, Franklin's call for moderation and his example of tact were unique--and essential. Thus when the convention came near the breaking point, Franklin was elected to a small Committee of Compromise. That was on July 2, 1787.

The convention then took its first recess--two whole days off, one day for the committee to work and one day to celebrate the 11th anniversary of the Glorious Fourth. In the committee Franklin doggedly supported the need for compromise. Hope for agreement had been only a guttering candle, but now the convention remained in session. The Constitution was finally signed by all but three delegates and was triumphantly ratified by one state after another.

James Madison's daily notes on the proceedings show he and Governor Morris each spoke nearly 200 times in more than three months of meetings. They rarely spoke briefly. Franklin, in sharp contrast, spoke 30 times and always tersely. Yet Franklin's few interventions contain the most memorable words spoken at that famous gathering. Let me illustrate by three famous quotations from his record.

On the rewards of office: "Sir, two passions have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice, the love of power and the love of money.... [W]hen united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men, a post of honor that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it."

On prayers in the Convention: "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?"

On the future: "Painters have found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at the sun on the back of the President's chair.... Now, at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."

With those closing words, the last recorded at the convention, Franklin, in effect, completed his part in the American Revolution.

The next year Franklin reviewed his public services as a senior citizen, after reaching what he called "David's period" of threescore and ten years: "Had I gone at seventy, it would have cut off twelve of the most active years of my life, employed, too, in matters of greatest importance."

These "matters of greatest importance" he mentioned, all after the age of 70, included his role in the fateful break with England; his hazardous late-winter mission to Canada; his aid to Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence; his mission to France to secure essential financial support and an all-out military alliance; the peace treaty with Great Britain; the treaties of amity and commerce with France, Sweden, and Prussia; and the Constitutional Convention itself.

Franklin's assessment of these momentous events in his old age was typical: "Whether I have been doing good or mischief is for time to discover." For himself he concluded, "I intended well and I hope all will end well."

After the convention, Franklin, having learned that Washington, in the presence of the first Congress, had been installed as the first president, took time from finishing his famous Autobiography to write a last letter to Jean Baptiste LeRoy, his former neighbor in the little Paris suburb where he had lived and worked for America for nine years: "Our new Constitution is now established and ... promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes."

We all recall the last four words of that letter when we observe birthdays or prepare our annual reports to the IRS. But Franklin's forecast of permanency is more important; it has been abundantly justified during the past two centuries as the Constitution has served and survived successive generations of Americans.

William Carr is a governor of the Benjamin Franklin Guild and a member of the Speaker's Bureau, U.S. Commission for the Bicentennial of the Constitution. His book The Oldest Delegate was published this year by University of Delaware Press.
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Title Annotation:Benjamin Franklin
Author:Carr, William C.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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