Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention


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"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 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."

—Benjamin Franklin

In the closing decades of the 18th century, a world in flux witnessed the American colonies, buoyed by Enlightenment ideals and revolutionary fervor—break free from British imperial control.

Globally, the tremors of potential revolutions were palpable, with France on the cusp of its own upheaval, and the continued realignment of European powers signaled changing dynamics in global politics.

Within this context, Benjamin Franklin, a polymath and diplomat with a keen understanding of both the Old and New Worlds, played a pivotal role in the Constitutional Convention, endeavoring to synthesize diverse colonial interests into a cohesive and enduring framework for the fledgling United States.


A portrait of Old Benjamin Franklin
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Benjamin Franklin, at the venerable age of 81, emerged as a beacon of wisdom and experience at the Constitutional Convention.

As the world witnessed Europe's intricate dance of diplomacy and colonialism, with France on the brink of its own seismic revolution, the United States was engaged in its own tumultuous debate on the nature of its federal government.

In this pivotal moment, Franklin, bearing the weight of decades of diplomacy, science, and civic leadership, brought a singular perspective to the convention's proceedings.

While younger delegates, such as Madison and Hamilton—fervently penned their visions for the new republic—Franklin often took on the role of mediator, deftly navigating the chasm between the large and small states, particularly during the disputes over representation.

His call for proportional representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate was integral to the development of the Connecticut Compromise, which became a cornerstone of the U.S. bicameral system.

Moreover, he was known for his sagacious use of anecdotes and parables, ensuring his arguments were both persuasive and memorable.

As debates raged around the institution of slavery, Franklin, a late-in-life abolitionist, was pragmatic, recognizing the need for compromise to achieve a unified constitution, even if it meant making concessions on deeply moral issues.

Ultimately, while he had reservations and understood the Constitution's imperfections, Franklin endorsed the document, understanding its importance in establishing a robust framework for governance. His presence and contributions, bridging generational and ideological divides, underscored the convention's delicate balance of vision and pragmatism.


Benjamin Franklin standing
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Within the confines of the sweltering Philadelphia State House during the summer of 1787, Benjamin Franklin's seasoned presence became invaluable in brokering compromises amidst rising tensions.

As states fiercely debated representation, it was Franklin who supported Roger Sherman's proposal that led to the Great Compromise, balancing representation between large and small states with a bicameral legislature. This was an ingenious solution to a deadlock that threatened the convention's very purpose.

Franklin's diplomatic acumen wasn't solely confined to domestic disputes—his experiences in France as an diplomat had refined his skills in managing intricate negotiations and tempering fiery personalities.

These skills proved invaluable when, during a particularly heated discussion about the nature of executive power, Franklin proposed a plural executive, suggesting an executive council rather than a single president—a proposition that, while not adopted, served to encourage further dialogue and exploration of a middle ground.

Recognizing the spiritual inclinations of many delegates, and observing the divisive nature of their debates, Franklin made a motion suggesting daily prayers to invoke divine guidance.

It was also Franklin's subtle diplomacy that led him to frequently operate behind the scenes, often holding private meetings and dinners at his home to discuss contentious issues informally.

His adept use of humor and parables reminded delegates of their larger purpose.

Benjamin Franklin's sage-like presence and the judicious application of his vast experiences made him an indispensable figure during the Constitutional Convention, ensuring that disagreements did not eclipse the broader vision of a united nation.


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Central to the assembly was the president's chair, ornately adorned with a sun at the horizon, a motif that did not escape the discerning eye of Benjamin Franklin.

Throughout the convention, as the delegates debated, argued, and occasionally found consensus, that sun remained a silent observer, becoming, in many ways, a symbolic presence as the nation's fate hung in the balance.

As days turned into weeks, and the promise of a united constitution seemed at times both tantalizingly close and hopelessly out of reach, Franklin's observant nature discerned meaning in that emblematic sun.

The ambiguity of the sun's position—whether it was rising or setting—mirrored the uncertainty the framers felt about their endeavor. Would this new nation, and the constitution they were crafting, herald a dawn of enlightenment and liberty, or would it descend into the darkness of factionalism and eventual tyranny?

On the final days of the convention, as the delegates readied themselves to sign the document that had been so painstakingly crafted, Franklin, ever the statesman and philosopher, broke his silence regarding the sun.

He voiced the hope that it represented a rising sun, signaling the dawn of a prosperous and free republic.

This sentiment encapsulated the aspirations of the delegates and the millions they represented: that the United States, through its Constitution, would illuminate a path of liberty, innovation, and unity for generations to come.

The sun, in Franklin's interpretation, encapsulates the hopeful spirit that characterized the birth of the United States and its enduring promise.


The Constitutional Convention of 1787
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In his later years, Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most esteemed polymaths, underwent a significant evolution in his stance on the institution of slavery.

Having once owned slaves himself, by the latter years of his life, Franklin had transformed into an ardent abolitionist. His leadership of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery wasn't a mere titular role—it represented his genuine commitment to the emancipation cause, echoing the wider sentiments of a growing abolitionist movement in the North.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787, however, presented Franklin with a formidable dilemma.

The convention was riddled with sectional tensions, primarily hinging on the economic and sociopolitical chasm between the agrarian, slave-holding South and the increasingly industrialized North.

As the delegates grappled with the contentious issue of representation, the question of how to count enslaved populations became a flashpoint.

Understanding the fragile nature of the union and the imperative of a united front against foreign threats, Franklin reluctantly conceded to the Great Compromise.

This compromise stipulated that for purposes of representation and taxation, five slaves would be counted as three individuals.

While this decision has since been a point of considerable historical contention, it is evident that Franklin, like many of his contemporaries, was wrestling with the immediate need for national unity against the backdrop of a profound moral quandary.


bicameral legislature
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The Constitutional Convention, convened in 1787 in Philadelphia, brought together the brightest minds of the young nation, each delegate arriving with their distinct visions and regional concerns.

Central to these deliberations was the vexing question of legislative representation.

The larger states, with their more substantial populations, naturally favored a system where representation in the national legislature was based solely on population—a system that would give them more significant influence. This vision was articulated in the Virginia Plan, which advocated for a bicameral legislature with both houses' representatives determined by state population.

Conversely, smaller states, wary of being overshadowed, rallied around the New Jersey Plan, which suggested a unicameral legislature with equal representation for each state, irrespective of its size.

Benjamin Franklin, ever the astute statesman, recognized the merits in both approaches.

While appreciating the logic of proportional representation, he was equally attuned to the fears of smaller states. His support for a bicameral system was not just an endorsement of a two-house structure but also a nod to the need for compromise.

The resultant Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, masterfully wove both visions into the fabric of the Constitution. It proposed a House of Representatives, where the number of delegates would be based on state population, and a Senate—ensuring equal representation with two senators from each state.

Franklin's endorsement of this approach was emblematic of the broader consensus reached at the convention: a balanced blend of popular sovereignty and state equality, laying the foundation for the American legislative system that endures to this day.


Benjamin Franklin in prayer
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Benjamin Franklin, despite his Enlightenment leanings and commitment to reason, recognized the power of prayer to transcend differences and to bind individuals in a common purpose.

At the Constitutional Convention, when the gravity of disagreements seemed poised to fracture the young republic's future—Franklin's call for prayer was emblematic of a deeper yearning for consensus and shared vision.

Historically, the power of prayer in deliberative settings can be traced back to ancient civilizations.

The Roman Senate, before significant sessions or decisions, would often seek the blessings of the gods, believing that divine favor would ensure the prosperity of their resolutions. Similarly, in the medieval councils of Europe, Christian prayer was integral, serving as both a spiritual guide and a symbol of the council's unified purpose.

The English Parliament, a direct antecedent to America's legislative bodies, has long maintained the tradition of opening sessions with prayer, emphasizing the weight of the responsibilities they bear.

In more modern contexts, the United Nations, despite its secular underpinnings, occasionally sees its assemblies and significant meetings prefaced by interfaith prayers or moments of reflection, emphasizing global unity and shared human aspirations.

Returning to the convention in Philadelphia, Franklin's proposal, though unheeded due to pecuniary concerns, resonated with a deeper truth.


the U.S. Constitution
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When presented with the draft of the Constitution, Franklin, like many of his peers, had his apprehensions.

The document was a complex weave of compromises, addressing a multitude of concerns ranging from representation and federal power to the rights of individual states.

Franklin's hesitance was not rooted in any singular provision but rather in the broader challenges of drafting a foundational document capable of enduring the unpredictabilities of time.

His famous statement encapsulates a deep pragmatism.

Franklin understood that the pursuit of a perfect Constitution was a Sisyphean endeavor. In the face of disparate interests and regional differences, achieving unanimous agreement on every facet was virtually impossible.

What was paramount, however, was the establishment of a "general Government," a central entity with the capacity to navigate the nation through its teething troubles and provide the stability the Articles had failed to ensure.

Furthermore, Franklin's reservations underscored his belief in the evolutionary nature of governance.

He anticipated that the Constitution, while groundbreaking, would not be immutable. Indeed, he foresaw the necessity of amendments and revisions, as demonstrated by his support for the inclusion of an amendment process within the document.

In the end, Franklin's decision to sign the Constitution was both an affirmation of its foundational strengths and a nod to future generations, trusting them to refine and adapt it as the nation evolved.


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Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most cherished polymaths, had an uncanny ability to defuse tension and redirect discussions using his hallmark wit and sarcasm.

Throughout the Constitutional Convention's rigorous deliberations, as delegates grappled with the deeply divisive issue of representation, Franklin often employed humor as a tool to illuminate the intrinsic flaws in some arguments.

His suggestion that "cows" be a determinant of representation, an evidently ludicrous proposition, underscored the complexities and potential pitfalls of the debate, redirecting the focus to the broader goal of creating a fair and lasting government.

This penchant for satire was not an isolated trait but rather a hallmark of Franklin's engagements throughout his life.

In his famed essay, "An Economical Project," Franklin satirically proposed adjusting sleep schedules to save on candle costs, all the while offering a more profound commentary on human adaptability and resourcefulness. Another instance is found in his "Speech of Miss Polly Baker," where he humorously critiqued the gender biases of his era by presenting a fictional woman's defense against the societal scorn of bearing illegitimate children.

One cannot forget his sarcastic "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One," a biting critique of British mismanagement of the American colonies. Through this mock guide, he illuminated the shortcomings of British governance, making serious political critiques more digestible through a veil of humor.

Franklin's humor, often veiled in sarcasm, served as both a balm and a beacon during contentious debates.

By drawing attention to the absurdities within serious discussions, he not only diffused potential hostilities but also forged a path toward clearer understanding and consensus.


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Despite being the oldest delegate, his intellectual verve and political astuteness remained undiminished. He keenly recognized that the young United States, still reeling from the Revolutionary War and grappling with the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation, stood at a precarious juncture.

Franklin's advocacy for a strong union was not merely an abstract ideal—it was born from a pragmatic understanding of geopolitics.

He was acutely aware of the external threats America faced, notably from Britain and other European powers, and knew that a fragmented confederation would be ill-equipped to address these challenges.

Within this context, his calls for compromise were not just about reconciling differing views but about ensuring the very survival of the nascent nation.

Throughout the convention, Franklin utilized his unique blend of wit, wisdom, and diplomacy to steer conversations toward middle ground.

One of his most significant contributions was his unwavering belief in the importance of a united front. When factions seemed intractable, Franklin's voice, advocating collaboration over confrontation, often provided the necessary perspective to realign the focus on the larger objective.

His role transcended that of a mere participant.

Franklin's diplomatic experiences, notably in France, coupled with his extensive readings and interactions with Enlightenment thinkers, equipped him with a panoramic view of governance. This understanding informed his contributions and his advocacy for a balanced constitution, one that could protect liberty while ensuring order.

The legacy of Benjamin Franklin's presence at the convention is profound.

While he did not author the majority of the document's text, his spirit of compromise, his push for unity, and his unwavering belief in the promise of America imbued the Constitution with a resilience and adaptability that has withstood the tests of time.