Today, to celebrate the birthday of a great American patriot, I’m taking a look at one of the most striking, and in fact rather odd, moments in American history.
The U. S. Constitution, which we like to keep in a state of suspense on our wall, was written at Philadelphia between May and September 1787. It was a hot summer, not just because all Philadelphia summers are, but because delegates from each of the new ‘States’ of America were tasked with setting up a federal government. Such things are never as easy as you expect them to be. As one delegate observed, ‘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.’ By June, someone reflected that after ‘4 or 5 weeks close attendance and continual reasonings,’ all the convention had produced was ‘a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding.’
Hands were ready to be thrown up, but the first inclination was to put them together. A movement was made to begin each meeting with a prayer. ‘In the beginning of the contest with Britain,’ said a voice, ‘when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection!’ God, it was understood, governed the affairs of men, and it was to ‘that kind Providence’ that the group owed the very opportunity of their meeting together. ‘And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?’
They had, for the movement was defeated.
The convention carried on into September. The delegates sought for models of government ‘back to ancient history,’ they looked at all the nations of Europe, and still found nothing to fit their circumstances. Finally, on the 17th of September, there came a speech not from one of the young and ambitious men, but from the oldest of them. Fifteen years the elder of any other delegate and, it is said, too weak to speak his own words, Benjamin Franklin had the following read out for George Washington, president of the convention:
‘I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present, but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: 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.’
No form of government, Franklin continued, that was well administered could be anything but a blessing to the people. And to make sure that Washington knew what he meant by it, he went on: ‘And I believe farther that this is likely to be well adminstered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism as other forms have done before it.’ One wonders how many make ‘a course of years,’ because by that time, he believed, ‘the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.’
So, I wish you a Happy 307th Birthday, Dr. Franklin, on behalf of your inevitably corrupt people and their inevitably despotic government! For he’s a jolly good fellow, etc., etc…
Some picks from the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library collection:
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (Norton Critical Edition, 1986) edited by J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall
The text of the famous, first American story, with scholarly notes and much related material. Ben Franklin’s self-penned life from his teenage years to his first mission to England makes for delightful reading. The editors give a safe, highly competent, and perhaps rather dated editorial context. The late Leo Lemay was a Franklin scholar to a degree not inaccurately described as obsessive, and his editorial partner, Zall, is of the Huntington Library, California, which now houses the original autograph manuscript of the Autobiography. The titles listed throughout this edition for further reading are extremely useful. For anyone studying Franklin, his autobiography, colonial America, or American identity, start here.
The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (Penguin, 2004) by Gordon S. Wood.
Franklin was born in 1706. When he was sent to Paris to raise funds for the War of Independence he was 70 years old, retired, a widower, but undoubtedly dedicated to the American cause. Yet, he had earlier been a champion of the British Empire. In this book, the respected American historian Gordon Wood wonders what made Benny turn on the empire he so admired. For me, his answer — vengeance, mostly — seems to suggest that Franklin was less an American patriot than a disgruntled Englishman. (After all, Mr Wood, he did raise two European men in his household: one buried in London and another in Paris.) But read it and decide for yourself.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003) by Walter Isaacson.
The biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Henry Kissinger has written a very accessible book about Benjamin Franklin. It is easy for any Franklin biographer to fall into the trap of judgementalism — Franklin, with his maxims and heavy moralism, almost invites the charge of hypocrisy — and Isaacson often gets himself caught up in it. One senses that he is at times overwhelmed by the complexity of the documentary record around Franklin, not to mention by the slipperiness of the man himself. Nevertheless, a decent life of Franklin, competent and conventional.
The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Doubleday, 2000), by H. W. Brands
Another conventional life of Franklin, written by a university scholar. Brands relies on published material, some of it obsolete, and brings nothing new to the table. It would seem as if Franklin were a safe choice for the budding American popular biographer or otherwise a rite of passage. This book is not a bad read, though, and will deliver the man as he is most commonly celebrated and admired by Americans.