September 17, 1787: Benjamin Franklin Speech



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 whereever 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 infallibility—and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”—He then moved that the Constitution be signed by the members and offered the following as a convenient form viz. “Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th. of Sepr. &c—In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names.”

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  1. I will sometimes listen to younger people talk about their grand ideas for what we need to set things right.

    I’m trying to think of a response along the lines of: “We are now in a system designed by men much smarter than you, more learned than you, wiser than you, and had a greater lived life than you. And you think you’ll be able to do better? Good luck.”

    Still missing something to punch it up, though.

  2. It is good to take last glances at the tapestry we are so anxious to unravel. The Separation of Powers, the duties and powers of the Legislature, the confines of an Executive, the intentionally diminutive stature of mere civil servants in the Republic are all being swept away like a lovely ruin on the shore of an encroaching sea. What follows will have no more surety than the shifting sands of a cape dune.

    President Washington warned us that partisanship would be our undoing and his wisdom is on full display now as each party grasps covetously at the presidency like it is the sum and summit of our government. That contest alone rather encourages the most awful sort of persons to seek positions of authority in our dying republic. As much so, that contest and the slanderous attack on all that have the temerity to independently seek to serve, discourage the participation of persons of good ethics and high morals. In the end, good people shake their heads and engage where their efforts are more likely to yield fruit, leaving nothing but the bad, the immoral, the corrupt, and the parasitical to suck the marrow from the bones of what was America.

    What an awful race we have become. What a shadow of the greatness that was. What a sick, degenerate, grasping, ugly people. So much that was good, so much that was of great profit to the world, lost in that short space between World War I and today…

    To be sure, there are little beacons of light in this gathering darkness. So it was in Israel before the Babylonian Exile. So it is here.

  3. “That contest alone rather encourages the most awful sort of persons to seek positions of authority in our dying republic.”

    Of course Dave the most savage and partisan contest for President in our history was in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

  4. I think the Framers quite correctly assessed the inclination to behave badly in the quest for power, both as individuals and as groups… Especially in groups.

    I am not suggesting that people in the past were better than people now. The past wasn’t a utopia and no earthly future can be one either. I am echoing smarter folks than me who note that the Constitution sets up an institutional framework, pitting branches against one another in a Separation of Powers model. It is not the good will of Man or his wisdom, intelligence, or creativity that preserves liberty but his self-interest, expressed through representative government. That government can only realize its potential through the natural tension of the branches, each keeping the others in check.

    Where we seem, at least to me, to be going wrong is that we have ceded the authority and duties of the Legislative Branch to the Judiciary and Executive Branches. The whole partisan contest seems to be to control the presidency and, so, the bureaucracy and judiciary. This bastardizes the Republic and rips the government from its constitutional moorings.

    What I read in the excellent piece you posted and, may I say without intending to flatter, in much of your excellent and deliberate writing, is that the Constitution was not perfect (What creation of Man can be?) but that it was intentional and clear. We corrupted it at our own peril and now rest on nothing but the expectations of incorruptibility of those who seek to rule over others.

    I think both Presidents Jefferson and Adams would have thought that quite foolish indeed. 🙂

  5. “Where we seem, at least to me, to be going wrong is that we have ceded the authority and duties of the Legislative Branch to the Judiciary and Executive Branches. The whole partisan contest seems to be to control the presidency and, so, the bureaucracy and judiciary. This bastardizes the Republic and rips the government from its constitutional moorings.”

    There we are in agreement. The problem today isn’t partisanship but careerism. In the 19th century the House changed hands routinely in relatively short spans of time, often because of unpopular legislation. Today, substantive legislation is rare, the politicians in Congress specializing in deadlock, and letting the other two branches act as they will.

  6. Precisely.

    Scalia was exactly right in his textual approach to legislation but that is the last thing the Legislature wants. Congress wants courts to mess with the legislation, to reconcile the poorly constructed amendments to their missing references and such. This lets them off the hook. Congress gets to go back to their districts and say “look at what these activist judges are doing…” Now, to be sure, there are plenty of activist judges but often the courts are just struggling to divine Congress’s intent.

    As you note, that is true for the Executive Branch too. There, Congress is only too happy to let the Executive Branch range far and wide from the statutes in coming up with policies and procedures to implement legislation. In the process, the bureaucracy is often forced to create what are effectively laws that fill gaps in the law. Congress is OK with this because, again, it gets them off the hook for the low quality of their legal writing. Also, again, there is no shortage of wannabe legislators within the bureaucracy who are only too happy to seize legislative powers covertly.

    It is a mess and Congress is at fault for their general ineptitude and corruption… At least, that is my view.

  7. An Open Letter to My Pennsylvania Senators:

    Dear Senator XXX,

    I am old enough to remember the Bork Confirmation Hearings, that awful moment when all of this circus-like atmosphere of Confirmation Hearings began. I remember the Thomas Hearings too and note that the entire process has become horrific.

    This partisan tit-for-tat MUST stop.

    Yes, the GOP pulled a nasty trick in holding over Judge Garland’s nomination till a new president took office. Yes, the Democrats exercised a Nuclear Option to destroy the controls over the process. There are dozens of other nasty partisan schemes engaged in over the last few decades too. All of that amounts to just one thing though; Our Senators have lost all sense of propriety, fairness, and sense of duty.

    “A president gets their nominee” unless the nominee is so defective as to be an unqualified hack. Garland was not. Kavanaugh is not. The many appointees, judges and bureaucrats alike, are not but our Senate has so little regard for the Separation of Powers and our constitution that you will sacrifice all for a moment in front of a camera.

    Who, exactly, do you serve? Do you even know anymore?

    I urge the Senate to do some real soul searching. Ask yourselves if character assassination, trickery, and self-aggrandizing partisan grandstanding are appropriate to the Senate that Robert Morris, James Monroe, John Henry, and John Adams inaugurated.

    Be more like them and less like an institution from the movie Idiocracy.

    A president should get their nominee. We the People decide if it was a good decision or not when next we vote. You work for us. Period.


    David Spaulding
    XXX, PA

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