The Reading Room

Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention


At 81, Benjamin Franklin was the senior statesman at a convention of young men. He was three times the age of the Convention’s youngest delegate (Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey, aged 26), and twice the average age for all delegates (41). Alexander Hamilton was 30, James Madison 35, and George Washington 55. 
Franklin was also the most renowned American of the age. Georgia delegate William Pierce kept a journal in which he wrote character sketches of the delegates in attendance, and his entry on Franklin captures his widespread fame.
Dr. Franklin is well known to be the greatest phylosopher of the present age;--all the operations of nature he seems to understand,--the very heavens obey him, and the Clouds yield up their Lightning to be imprisoned in his rod. But what claim he has to the politician, posterity must determine. It is certain that he does not shine much in public Council,--he is no Speaker, nor does he seem to let politics engage his attention. He is, however, a most extraordinary Man, and tells a story in a style more engaging than anything I ever heard. Let his Biographer finish his character. He is 82 years old, and possesses an activity of mind equal to a youth of 25 years of age. 
Franklin served as an unofficial host for delegates, opening his garden to them with a keg of dark beer or a cup of tea at the ready. George Washington’s first stop upon arriving in Philadelphia was to pay a call on Franklin at his home just blocks from Independence Hall.
Franklin would have been the only contender against Washington to serve as the convention’s presiding officer, but he intended to nominate Washington for that position. He was unable to perform that duty because stormy weather prevented him from attending the Convention’s opening session, and the entire Pennsylvania delegation nominated Washington at his request.
James Madison kept detailed notes of the Convention’s proceedings. In his entry for May 25, 1787, after describing Washington’s unanimous election as president of the Convention, he makes the following observation: “The nomination came with particular grace from Penna, as Docr. Franklin alone could have been thought of as a competitor. The Docr. Was himself to have made the nomination of General Washington, but the state of the weather and his health confined him to his house.” 
Because his poor health prevented him from walking the short distance from his home to the Pennsylvania State House, he was transported to and from the Convention in a sedan chair he had brought home when he returned from Paris. He often wrote out long speeches and asked for a colleague to read them.
Despite William Pierce's doubts about his political skills, Franklin had a lengthy career in politics, beginning with his appointment as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1736. As early as 1757, when he accepted the nomination as Pennsylvania's agent in England to negotiate long-standing disputes with the Proprietors, Franklin served the colonies first and then the newly liberated nation as an emissary and ambassador for many years. The skills that he honed while performing those roles, along with his moderate temperament that was always in search of ways to bring contending parties together, served him well during the Convention.Franklin thought beyond American borders when he considered the possibilities set in motion by the Convention. In October, well before even one state had ratified the Constitution, Franklin sent a copy of the document to Ferdinand Grand, a Paris banker he had met while on his diplomatic mission to France to raise both political and financial support for the new nation. His accompanying note reflects his optimistic and universal outlook.
I send you the enclos’d the propos’d new Federal Constitution for these States. I was engag’d 4 Months of the last Summer in the Convention that form’d it. It is now sent by Congress to the several States for their Confirmation. If it succeeds, I do not see why you might not in Europe carry the Project of good Henry the 4th into Execution, by forming a Federal Union and One Grand Republick of all its different States & Kingdoms; by means of a like Convention; for we had many Interests to reconcile.”
In a future post, I will discuss Franklin’s role at the Convention and some of the issues he was most concerned about. Here I note his final reflections after an arduous summer of debate as he watched delegates sign the newly agreed to Constitution, as recounted in Madison’s notes: 
Whilst the last members were signing it Doctr. Franklin looking towards the President Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have, said he, often and often in the course of the Session and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears at to its issue looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.

Comments:

Thea Burress

Very interesting piece on Ben Franklin. I wasn't aware of his prominence at the Constitutional Convention. Looking forward to the follow up piece.