Benjamin Franklin was older than the others involved in the Constitutional Convention in 1987. These delegates from the various colonies represented many factions–many different ways of thinking. They had their biases, of course, and their cheats–along with whichever of their convictions were true and righteous. But they also had varying degrees of foresight as to what was likely to happen. That is, they had different levels of understanding, both as to how the Union should be conducted, and as to how the various decisions they would make would play out in the real world. They had different levels of skill at decoupling from the deliberacy of their wishes in order to analyze what was likely to be the results.
When the drafting of the Constitution had gotten close enough (in his opinion) to being serviceable, Franklin wrote a speech to be read to the assembly, being too infirm to present it himself. I have copied the speech below in its entirety, and I hope you’ll take a couple of minutes to read it, as it is not very long. Of particular interest, however, is the sentence that I have highlighted in boldface in the speech below, and that I have excerpted in its immediate context here (emphasis added):
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 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. From Benjamin Franklin’s final speech to the Constitutional Convention. 1787.
The framers of our Constitution who met that summer in that hot Philadelphia room definitely wanted to avoid despotic government, and with good reason. They had recently fought a war (1785-1783), revolting against the occupying armies and the remote rule of the despotic King George III. Further, they definitely thought themselves capable of ruling themselves. Self-determination–the business of deciding for ourselves how best to govern–was the driving idea behind the revolution. And even so, not all of the colonials agreed it was proper to put off the king’s rule. They were very divided.
But as the king’s tyranny had increased, the colonies had become more and more likely to see self-rule as the best solution. So, they had ventured the war and won it. And now, some four years later, as their original constitution (The Articles of Confederation) had proved insufficient to hold the states together, they had come back to the table to hammer out this new Constitution, aimed at forging “a more perfect Union”—and they still wanted to avoid despotic government.
Franklin, however, warned of a time when such a totalitarian government might be the only way to hold the people together. He had said that any of a number of governmental types might well work—if “well administered”, mind you, and that this newly-proposed Constitution was just as likely to work. But there was a second limit to how well it could work. Not only did it have to be “well administered”, but it would not work on a people that had become too corrupted. No, he suggested that people who are too corrupted, simply require a totalitarian dictator to keep a society functioning.
John Adams, speaking of the same Constitution, would later remark in a letter that:
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams to Massachusetts Militia, 11 October 1798
I think that both Adams and Franklin were seeing the same things: that the citizens were going to have to supply their own character, and that the righteous maintenance of the new government would rely on them doing it.
But what has become of us? Have we proven since 1787 to be a people who are sufficiently moral to keep our own government on the straight-and-narrow?
Uh, no. We have not.
The same motley crew of citizens, some of whom had cheated to get their way in events like “The Boston Massacre” and “The Boston Tea Party” would continue to cheat against the very Constitution they had just toiled to commit to paper, and to which they had to swear allegiance if they were to hold office under it. For example, the very first Congress passed the Judicial Act of 1789, which undermined the authority of the sovereign states in the Union by unconstitutionally granting the US Supreme Court (and its inferior federal courts) the power to hear appeals of state court decisions.
And did the people rise up to put an end to that lawless overreach of the Congress?
Nope. There was opposition, but it was not sufficient to repeal the lawless Acts, nor to punish those who had dared to enact them. The states had signed off on the Constitution, but then they proved not to be up to the task of being good citizen-overseers of the form of government they had chosen. The reality of the Americans actions simply did not live up to the grandiose rhetoric they had adopted. And they had ample opportunity to oppose the cheating.
Let me give you a compelling example:
This same John Adams (the 2nd president under the new Constitution), who called for “a moral and religious people” to uphold the Constitution, also signed into law the terribly-unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. If you don’t know about these acts already, you might not believe their audacity, but among other things, they made it illegal for anyone to criticize the government, up until the time of the end of Adam’s term as president! (In case it hasn’t occurred to you yet, this blatantly violates the First Amendment and that foundation of all freedoms, the Freedom of Speech.)
Now, there was opposition to the Alien & Sedition Acts. There was definitely an outcry. But was it sufficient to have the acts repealed and the enactors punished? No. And that’s the only outcome that would really count for anything. The citizens-overseers failed to get the job done. And the lawlessness continued on with the citizens quickly getting use to “the new normal,” as we would call it today.
Is that what Mr. Franklin meant by “so corrupted”? I think it is.
I think it’s very easy to have a view of ourselves that doesn’t match with the reality of ourselves. For example—and I don’t particular mean to pick on Texas, but they have provided this excellent example: “Don’t mess with Texas!” is a popular warning/boast, but even so, Texas has been “messed with” by way of federal overreach for a very long time. The state’s original self-determination has been undermined in countless ways by the ever-encroaching Federal Government, yet the people of Texas (who repeat this saying) seem to have a higher view of their self-determination than is warranted by the facts.
My apologies if it seems like I’m singling out Texas, because I’m not. I think that all Americans are vulnerable to this sort of self-inflated view of ourselves as protectors of the Constitution, or of our rights. We have been defeated so many times that such boasts are laughable, yet I don’t think we understand the track record that makes them so. We don’t understand what all has happened, and what it means. And this comes as little surprise when each generation ends up knowing less about the Constitution and our history than did the one before it. Further, with the advance of communications technologies, each successive generation has had more and more access to information, and yet uses that access less and less to focus on these important civic topics, and more and more for their own entertainment.
Is this the kind of corruption that Mr. Franklin had in mind?
In 2008/2009 I found myself with a picket sign in my hand for the first time in my life, protesting the T.A.R.P. bailouts on the Capitol lawn in Tallahassee, FL. These current bailouts could be 9-or-more times bigger before it’s all said and done, yet I think that the people have quickly gotten used to this “new normal”, and will hardly lift a finger in protest. It’s a sudden burst of speed in our longstanding descent down the slippery slope of lawlessness. And now the people are finally getting direct payments from the government into their bank accounts. It’s gone that far.
Were we heroes in the 2008/2009 protests? We might like to think so, but the fact of the matter is that our efforts fell far short. We failed to get the job done. We stood up to the government by protesting, but when the IRS cheated by failing to approve the tax-exemption applications of all those new “Tea Party” groups, most everybody quit pushing back. And the lesson we demonstrated was this: Americans have a definite limit to how far they are willing to go to put their government back on its rightful leash.
In 1789, America started a thing it could not finish. It bit off more than it could chew. It created this government, but proved unwilling to give it spankings as needed. It failed to live up to the piece of wisdom that Ben Franklin had metaphorically raised with this proverb:
“…it is easier to build two chimneys than to keep one in fuel. “ Benjamin Franklin (1848). “The Way to Wealth”, p.7
In case you don’t “get it” right away, here’s the point of this metaphor: It’s easier to build a government than it is to keep it running right. And we have definitely failed to keep it running right. The government, which was supposed to be the servant of justice, became self-aware and self-serving. And how we are so far gone down that slippery slope that the only quick reform possible–even if unlikely–is that some benevolent and righteous king somewhere should take over our country and set things straight for us without our (corrupt) say-so in the matter.
But where will we find such a king? Surely not in Russia, nor in China. Nor in the United Nations. No, the emergence of such a king is itself as unlikely as is the idea that a few million Americans might suddenly take a notion to go learn the Constitution and what it means over these next few weeks, and from there, become effective citizen-overseers of their own local, state, and federal governments.
We have become so politically corrupted as to be incapable of self-determination in our current attitude and knowledge alike. The idea of taking the bull by the horns and getting something done is more foreign to us than ever. And that makes us incapable of ruling ourselves anymore—and much less of ruling our own government, whose members simply want control of the Union more than we do. (I expound on this in my Gold Bar Metaphor chapter in my novel.)
I think you were right, Mr. Franklin, to think ahead as you did—to see the possibilities of what might go wrong and how it might all play out. We have proved your analysis by our own negligence. And in this latest hurry-up to corrupt our government even further, we show no meaningful signs of turning ourselves around. I doubt very much that we could find even one in a hundred among us who understand what time it is, and of those, probably not one in a hundred would be willing to do the work required to reform the country. We have definitely become incapable.
I confess that I do not entirely approve of 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 oblig’d, 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 two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong. But tho’ 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 little 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 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.
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 use his Influence to gain Partisan in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary Effects and great Advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign Nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent Unanimity. Much of the Strength and Efficiency of any Government, in procuring and securing Happiness to the People depends on Opinion, on the general Opinion of the Goodness of that 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 our Posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution, wherever our Influence may extend, and turn our future Thoughts and Endeavours 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.