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225 Years Ago Today: Franklin's Moment

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(Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, 09/17/1787) -- Benjamin Franklin broke the silence. At 81, he was the oldest of the delegates and was quite frail. He rose slowly, with a cane planted in the ground by one hand and a lengthy speech held in the other.

Beloved for his devotion to liberty, Franklin feared that the new federal powers might allow government to tamper with individual freedoms. However, he was prepared to put his concerns aside and endorse the Constitution because he strongly believed in the need for a more unified nation with less bickering among the states.

His owlish glasses and plain brown coat made the plump Franklin an unassuming, eccentric contrast to Hamilton and other socially correct delegates.

Yet throughout their months of five-hour sessions six days a week with only one 10-day break, the delegates had turned to the affable Franklin in moments of stress.

Often racked with pain from gout and kidney stones, Franklin always obliged, offering a humorous tale or even throwing a lively party at his nearby home, where the wine flowed freely.

The delegates relished a visit to Franklin's Market Street house, filled with hundreds of scientific oddities, mostly his own inventions. He would eagerly show them. The "glass machine," for example, exhibited blood circulation through the use of a fluid-filled reservoir that supplied numerous tubes of glass.

In the courtyard, Franklin would sit under his favorite mulberry tree and offer the delegates conversational diversions from their often tedious business.

Although some of the younger delegates found Franklin a sentimental old fool prone to feeble-minded irrelevance, he was shrewd beyond their understanding. He knew that his approach would bridge the hostilities that threatened failure and would move the delegates toward a common goal.

Franklin showed this skill in the speech he wrote for the day of the signing. He had anticipated the apprehension that would envelop the delegates as they were about to reveal their Constitution to the people.

Yet, for the first time during the convention, Franklin curiously claimed to be too frail to speak. He asked fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson, 45, to read the speech for him.

"I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve," Franklin's speech began, "but I am not sure I shall ever approve them. For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions."

His speech went on to describe his complaints, but he promised not to raise them outside the convention hall. He consented to the Constitution "because I expect no better," Franklin said, "and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

He ended with a plea that delegates who still had objections "would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility -- and to manifest our unanimity, put his name to the instrument."

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