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A Union, If You Can Keep It

By Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning


After the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have been asked “what kind of government have you given us?” to which he replied “a republic, if you can keep it.” The history books say that it was one Mrs. Powel to whom Franklin spoke. Mr. McHenry, a delegate from Maryland, is the source on whom the historians rest their case. However, McHenry’s legend of Franklin doesn’t appear until 1803 when published in an anti-Jeffersonian newspaper. In some later versions circulated in pamphlets, McHenry claims that Franklin told her in private, whereas in the first source, Franklin gives the famous quip before the members of the convention.


Nevertheless, our students wouldn’t have to dig through the historical record to see that the quotation is fable: our government students know that Franklin probably would have said “a Union, if you can keep it.”

As we approach the end of the first quarter, our students are wrapping up the Constitutional Convention in Government class. For the last two days we have held seminar discussions on a few different questions about the convention. These questions include:


  • Who is the most important framer at the convention? Why?

  • What was the most important plan presented at the convention? Why?

  • What was the most important argument at the convention? Why?

  • What was the role of compromise at the convention? Is compromise good or bad?


There are several men at the convention who contributed to compromise. Mr. Ellsworth helped create the grounds for the Connecticut Compromise with his June 29th speech. Mr. Sherman helped convince the delegates from the small states to agree to the Connecticut Compromise. However, no one contributed to Compromise more so than Franklin; this is because Franklin thought compromise was essential for Union.


The two key episodes in which Franklin makes compromise possible, and therefore union possible, and therefore America possible, were June 28th, right before the Gerry Committee presented the Connecticut Compromise, and September 17th, right before the delegates signed the convention.


On June 28th, Franklin makes a speech wherein he moves that the members join together in prayer each day before they convene. I will let his words speak for themselves here:


I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

And again, Franklin spoke on September 17th (what we now know as Constitution Day) and urged Union. He said,

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…

Franklin was the oldest delegate at the Convention. He was 81 years old; 15 years older than the second eldest delegate. Yet, his speeches demonstrate the power of words (compromise measures followed his first speech, the adoption of the Constitution the second) and his actions demonstrate the importance of humility (his example of one who might submit his own judgment to the common consensus must have embarrassed those who dared to object to the delegates’ work and not sign the Constitution). But most importantly, his arguments demonstrate the importance of Union, and the necessity of compromise in a system of representative self-government.


Ultimately, what Franklin's actions at the convention teach is that self-government, set over an enlarged sphere encompassing a variety of interests, only works insofar as the people can maintain virtue, remain dedicated to fundamental principles, and find a way to collapse disagreement and pursue a common good.


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