In part one of this short series of posts on Ben Franklin's take on The Constitution, I told you that his focus in giving this speech was to urge the men in the room to stay focused on compromise in order to protect the greater good of this new governing document. He knew, though, that his task was difficult because many men had concerns about various aspects of the final document, things they simply did not like. He could see that ultimately, if they weren't careful, some form of despotic government could be our fate.
For the past few years, I've been saying the following to my students that the United States is as ripe as it's ever been for a dictatorial take over. I follow that up with some comments about how this could easily come from either the Left (like a Castro or Stalin) or the Right (like a Mussolini or Napoleon). That notion is too long to go into detail here, but the point is the Franklin saw the possible threat of this coming. Note what Franklin said:
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, there is no Form of Government but what may be a blessing to the People if well administered; and I 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.
-Ben Franklin, "From Benjamin Franklin: Speech in the Convention on the Constitution (unpublished) Mon, Sep 17, 1787
Look at the key points involved in this sentiment: "to be well administered for a course of years." Now think about this, when was the last time we had a good administration? Many will rush quickly to Reagan, but for many on the left politically, he certainly was not a good president. He was probably the closest to the Founders' position on many issues that we'd had in leadership since Grover Cleveland, so perhaps he fits. Others would suggest President Clinton, but his administration was ripe with integrity issues. In many respects, you end up almost 100 years back till the series of presidents that includes Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (and those Progressive Presidents all had issues that the Founders would have had problems with).
What is "well administered" anyway? For the Founders, it certainly would have meant keeping a close connection to the Constitution. Having just written the document, they were concerned with how it was to be interpreted. And no, they didn't agree in full, but they were constantly concerned with it.
It also would have meant keeping the excesses of power under wraps. Again, they would have disagreed as to how tight the wraps were to be held, but even Hamilton would be aghast at how powerful the Federal Government has become. Having just fought with England for control of their own futures, the Founding Fathers were in no mood to return to some over-powerful government (Shays' Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion being the two most famous examples of that feeling, post-Revolutionary War).
Here's the second key point Franklin makes --"when the people shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other." What does he mean by "corrupted?" Merriam-Webster's says corrupted means "1 a : to change from good to bad in morals, manners, or actions; b : to degrade with unsound principles or moral values." To Franklin, our Republic would hold as long as we held to a sense of virtue, a connection to the values upon which the country, the early colonies were established. John Adams, Patrick Henry and others spoke to the same point -- any loss of values that provide our foundation will doom the Republic.
Are we there yet? Well, certainly it depends upon whom you ask, but I think the answer is a pretty easy "yes." We are there now. Corrupted. No matter what side of the political aisle you are on, it's not hard to look around for evidence of the moral corruption that has gripped our country. And the reason is not our supposed rejection of God. Instead, I would offer one main reason to be that the last three generations of Americans (Millennials, Gen X, Boomers) have grown up in so much abundance, our wealth and success has eaten away at the fibers of our historic understanding of values such as hard work, truth, trustworthiness, and sacrifice.
Can we fix this? Honestly, I'm not sure, but we must try. This is one reason why I travel as a speaker, talking about values. The Founders weren't sure they would make it either, as Franklin is clearly saying, but he had given most of his life to attempt to help out (through writing, through service, through sacrifice). We must try.
Carl E Creasman Jr is a Professor of History at Valencia College in Orlando, FL.
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