Happy 227th Birthday, Constitutional Republic

On March 4, 1789, Congress assembled and declared the Constitution of the United States of America to be in effect.  I think it worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the simple fact that this remarkable governing document came to be agreed upon by diverse men with diverse interests.

This event came to pass, of course, only because, though our Constitution is an agreement by the several states to act in certain ways for the common good of all, this can ultimately only be achieved through protecting the rights of those individual states – and of the individual citizen.  As such a careful reading of the Constitution reveals that it empowers the federal government in well-defined and limited ways.  (The first ten amendments, commonly referred to as The Bill of Rights, were not written in until later in the year and ratified a couple of years later.  These superfluous amendments simply explained in more detail rights that citizens, other people, and the several states already naturally had – rights that the Constitution did not revoke and that no man or law shall be allowed to revoke under our new government.)

Who better to elaborate on the establishment of our constitutional republic than the wisest of our Founding Fathers – and probably the wisest American of any time – Benjamin Franklin?  Here are his words regarding the adoption of the Constitution on the day of its signing:

Benjamin Franklin to the Federal Convention
17 Sept. 1787Farrand 2:641–43
The engrossed Constitution being read,

Docr. Franklin [not feeling well at the time] rose with a speech in his hand, which he had reduced to writing for his own conveniency, and which Mr. [fellow Pennsylvanian, James] Wilson read in the words following.

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 whereever 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 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 administered.

On the whole, Sir, I cannot 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.

–He then moved that the Constitution be signed by the members and offered the following as a convenient form viz. “Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the States present the 17th. of Sepr. &c–In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *