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Ben Franklin and the Constitution: Part 3

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Is it possible that we are rushing headlong into a larger crisis than anyone has reasonably assumed? I would say yes, having written more about that fact elsewhere, and in the previous two blog posts on this topic (part one here and part two here), we have seen that Ben Franklin was concerned in 1787 that possibly, even after two attempts at government, the country was equally in trouble. He especially felt worried if the leaders could not agree to focus on their areas of agreement, and gain a little humility at the same time.

Read what Franklin said in the last of the speech that I have been referencing:

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 Partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and 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 and efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that Government as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors.
-Ben Franklin, "From Benjamin Franklin: Speech in the Convention on the Constitution (unpublished) Mon, Sep 17, 1787

This comment from Franklin might be the most controversial among current leaders today, but again, the wisdom is immense. Franklin starts by saying, again, that while he has doubts about the new Constitution, he is willing to accept the fact that perhaps it is an okay document. He has no illusions that he could have done tons better. Now it is on this point that our all of us should focus.

As I tell my class, we all hold to our opinions because we believe them to be true. No one holds an opinion that they know to be false. Moreover, our opinions are hard fought and dearly won, thus we are typically loath to let them go. Franklin has couched this entire piece on the notion that we should hold our opinions more loosely.

Franklin then goes further, asking the leaders to be cautious and mind what they say to others. If, he suggests, leaders go home and loudly blast the document on the points thought to be poor or bad, then all such ramblings and bloviating will merely inflame public opinion against the document.

He doesn't stop there, though, for with this next sentence, he nails what many today believe to be our biggest problem in so much of government -- on the our general belief, as citizens, to the "wisdom and integrity of its Governors." Without that trust, the entire social contract falls apart, Franklin warns.

This issue hits home today. Citizens are overwhelmed by our fast paced, "always on" stream of news, coming from a seemingly partisan media (rather than a Fourth Estate focused on simply reporting information to the citizens), seemingly intent on twisting the opinion of the population to be AGAINST the government. On top of that, we have a never ending stream of political leaders who are all too happy to jump in front of a camera to pontificate about some point on some issue, for the hope of their own political gain. Our current stress over the "fiscal cliff" possibility providing just one more recent example. If modern leaders wish to know why so many people do not trust them, they should study Franklin's words again.

Notice, Franklin is not saying that the members of the meeting could not disagree. They could and they did. His point was that now, having argued and compromised and now produced a document, they should gather together in support of the decision. And, they should refrain from "airing their dirty laundry" so to speak.

I know this notion cuts against the grain of what so many believe they understand about government, that each and every decision should somehow be made a public spectacle. Franklin realizes that the opponents of the Constitution will certainly point out whatever flaws they find. As a former newspaper man, he also knows the press will have its voice heard, in 1788 as in 2012. Franklin, though is warning that it the leaders don't work together to bring about the ratification of this act, it will undermine the public opinion.

I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to is, 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.

In my fraternity at Auburn University, FarmHouse, we had a "rule" about our decisions. While in debate, we could loudly and strongly oppose one another on issues, but once the vote was had, then the decision stood and we would stand behind our decision, shoulder to shoulder, and give our best effort to see the decision successful. We were channeling Ben Franklin; maybe our political leaders will start to do the same.

Carl E Creasman Jr is a Professor of History at Valencia College in Orlando, FL.