Franklin rose but then handed the speech to James Wilson, who would read it for his friend and senior colleague. Looking back over the nearly four months of debate, disagreement, and occasional outbursts of ill temper, Franklin observed that whenever “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?” The wonder of it all, Franklin asserted, was that the delegates had somehow managed to create a system of government “approaching so near to perfection as it does.” Franklin acknowledged there were “several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve,” but, he added, “the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.” And in that spirit, Franklin announced, “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such, because I think a general government necessary for us … I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution.”

Franklin then appealed to the delegates’ sense of humility and fallibility. “If every one of us,” he warned, “in returning to our constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavour to gain partisans in support of [those objections], we might prevent it being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor … from our real or apparent unanimity.” He then asked that “every member of the convention who may still have objections to [the Constitution] would, with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility—and to make manifest our unanimity—by putting his name to this instrument.”

Franklin’s appeal to the delegates concluded with a formal proposal that “the Constitution be signed by the members [in] … a convenient form, viz. Done in Convention, by the unanimous consent of the states present the 17th of September … In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names.”

The “convenient form” Franklin proposed—that of asking each delegate to sign the Constitution in recognition of the “unanimous consent of the states present”—was a ploy conceived by Gouverneur Morris “in order to gain the dissenting members.” The dissenting members were not being asked to signal their own approval of the Constitution, but merely to acknowledge that their state delegations had approved it. Morris hoped that this strategy, “put into the hands of Doctor Franklin,” might be sufficient to produce at least the appearance of unanimity.

If the script for the Constitutional Convention had been conceived and directed by a Hollywood filmmaker, Franklin’s speech would have been the final one of the Convention, with perhaps a few gracious closing words from Washington. But this was real life, and so other voices—some supportive and others dissonant—would have to be heard before the Convention could be done with its business. Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts now rose with a note of apology in his voice—as if he were aware of the inappropriateness of intruding on Dr. Franklin’s moment—and asked if it might lessen objections to the Constitution if the clause setting the ratio of representation from one to forty thousand was changed to one to thirty thousand. After his motion was seconded by Rufus King of Massachusetts and Daniel Carroll of Maryland, George Washington rose and, incredibly, made the only substantive speech he is known to have made during the whole of the Convention.

He noted that his role as presiding officer had “hitherto restrained him from offering his sentiments on questions depending in the House,” and admitted that the same principle “ought now to impose silence on him.” He nevertheless chose on this sole occasion to speak in support of Gorham’s resolution to reduce the ratio of representation. Washington’s speech was neither eloquent nor forceful. He merely “acknowledged that it [the one to forty thousand ratio] had always appeared to himself among the exceptionable parts of the plan.” Like many in the Convention, he believed that smaller congressional districts would ensure a closer relationship between representatives and their constituents, and he hoped that the proposed change might reduce the number of those opposing the Constitution.

Whatever the personal opinion of the delegates on the relative merits of the two formulas for representation, this was hardly a moment when anyone wanted to pick a fight with General Washington! Gorham’s amendment passed unanimously. It seems unlikely that any of the delegates—even the most disaffected—would vote against Washington on the only occasion on which he had voiced an opinion.

We are still left with the question of why Washington would choose to break his silence on this particular issue. The only plausible answer is that he knew this would be his last chance to speak on a matter on which his words might elicit unanimity among the delegates. He did not want to see the Convention end before seizing that one last opportunity.

But so much for unanimity. Edmund Randolph, plainly uncomfortable about rebuffing Franklin’s conciliatory speech, “apologized for refusing to sign the constitution, notwithstanding the vast majority and venerable names that would give sanction to its wisdom and worth.” He left open the possibility that he might, in the end, support its adoption during the ratification debates, but for the moment, he would refuse to sign because he believed that the people of the states would not accept the Constitution in its present form.

Gouverneur Morris rose to answer Randolph, reminding the delegates that they were being asked to sign the document not as an affirmation of their own individual appraisal but of the unanimity existing among the state delegations present. Echoing Franklin, he admitted that “I too have objections, but considering the present plan as the best that was to be attained, I should take it with all its faults.” The alternative, Morris argued hyperbolically, was the onset of a “general anarchy” across the nation.

The extent of Morris’s reservations about the completed draft remains a point of uncertainty. He is said later to have commented that “I not only took it as a man does his wife, for better, for worse, but what few men do with their wives, I took it knowing all its bad qualities.” That retrospective assessment no doubt contained a measure of truth, but it is likely that at that moment he felt considerable pride at the magnitude of his accomplishment.

 

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