Benjamin Franklin’s words on the Constitution

On Tuesday night, almost on the eve of a historic Senate vote on expanding health care coverage for Americans, hundreds of people congregated outside of Joe Lieberman’s Connecticut house in a candlelight vigil to advocate for healthcare reform. The vigil, organized by the Interfaith Fellowship for Universal Healthcare, included rabbis who appealed to Lieberman’s conscience to make him to the right thing and support reform.  From the Danbury News Times,

STAMFORD — Quietly holding candles, hundreds of clergymen, congregants and reform advocates lined the sidewalks outside Independent U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s Stamford home Sunday night in a show of support for universal health care.

“When we heard not only would he vote against it, but he’d use his power, his position as a swing vote … to block it from coming to a vote, we had to send a message so he knows people who vote overwhelmingly favor the public option,” said Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford.

The vigil began at Stamford High School, Lieberman’s alma mater, and ended at the senator’s home, the Hayes House, across the street.

“In some sense, it’s poetic,” said Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, who attended the vigil. “The place where Sen. Joseph Lieberman received his high school education, the place he visited upon his announcement to seek the vice presidency, a place where his run for the presidency began — and it just so happens, a place across the street from where he lives.”

Lieberman is going so far as to say that he’ll filibuster health care because he doesn’t believe that a public option will work.  He is, in essence, saying that his knowledge and “understanding” is much deeper than health care experts, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the evidence of every other industrialized nation’s government health care systems and, quite frankly, a majority of the American people.

Putting aside the question whether Lieberman is sincerely critical of the idea of a public option or just continuing the disingenuous douchebaggery he’s been known for ever since losing his Democratic primary, I thought this was a good time to remind folks of another man who had doubts about a big piece of legislation.  He was a big enough man, however, to realize that he was not the wisest person on earth.  (This realization, however, ironically meant that he probably was.)

The man was Benjamin Franklin, and the legislation was the U.S. Constitution.  On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the document had been drafted, but it remained to be signed.  My impression is that nobody was sure whether it would be ratified.  Benjamin Franklin, 81 years old and very frail, wanted to give a speech on the occasion.  Being too weak to do so, it was read by James Wilson.

The text follows (via U.S. Constitution online):

Mr. President

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: 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. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right — Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.”

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, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and 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. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For 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. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. 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 partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & 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 & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administred.

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, 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.

The first time I read this speech, I was actually moved to tears by its humble wisdom.  I can only hope that, as the debate in the Senate over health care begins, that some of our lawmakers can find some of that wisdom in their own hearts to do the right thing.

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3 Responses to Benjamin Franklin’s words on the Constitution

  1. IronMonkey says:

    What a great speech. I could feel the emotion of the man in it: he seemed to have put all his hearth into it.

  2. Mary says:

    So does “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” come from Poor Richard’s Almanac then?

    Thanks for posting this. I wish I could vote for Franklin now…

    • Hmm… I don’t know, though it certainly seems to apply to Franklin’s views on the Constitution.

      When I look back at the statements of the founding fathers, it makes me very disappointed at the large number of hacks we have in politics today.

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