Ben Franklin Was Wrong! (and that’s OK)

Yesterday as I watched “This Week with Christiane Amanpour” the round table discussion focused on the US Constitution. I found it very interesting, in particular the view that the Executive Branch has been steadily increasing its power over the other two branches.  It has been my opinion that the biggest problem facing American politics is the fact that our system of checks and balances is no longer administered by the three branches of government, but instead the job has fallen to the two political parties.

This has led us to the rigid orthodoxy that paralyzes any effort to get anything done.  Witness the debate on the debt ceiling.  Neither side can compromise; in fact the word compromise is taken as a sign of weakness.   This tug-of-war has led to Congressional ineffectiveness and enabled (or forced?)  the Executive branch to fill the void of power. While there are many recent examples (Health Care, Libya) in the news today, it is by no means a new phenomenon.  From Obama, to Bush, to Nixon, to Roosevelt, to Wilson, you would be hard pressed to find any President that did not believe in expanding the power of the Executive branch. It’s the answer to an inefficient and messy legislature.  Even Thomas Jefferson, himself a founding father, can be accused of this regarding the purchasing of the Louisiana Territory. I believe that this is the natural order of things, which is precisely why the Constitution was drawn up.

Our country was founded on the idea of not having a king. Not only were the founders against a hereditary monarchy, but they were also concerned with the idea of placing an inordinate amount of power in the hands of a single individual.

I believe our Legislative Branch needs a good dose of humility in order let go of ideological trappings.  Perhaps then they can work together and provide a better check on the Executive branch. On the “This Week”  yesterday Jill Lepore quoted Ben Franklin saying , “let us doubt a little of our own infallibility“.  This got me curious and after some quick research I found the speech she was alluding to.  It was short enough and so good that it is posted in its entirety below.  I believe the sections in bold are particularly applicable to our day in regards to the current climate.

Ben Franklin

Before the Constitutional Convention of 1787

 “I CONFESS that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, 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 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: “But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”

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, further, 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 counsels 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 and 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 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, for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of our posterity, that we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, sir, I can not 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.”

Finally, as I flipped through the pages of “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine this July 4th morning, I found the flowing; “virtue is neither hereditary nor is it perpetual.”

The fact that many disparate opinions joined together to create a system of government over 200 years ago does not bestow on the current members of those bodies an inherent merit or distinction for their opinions in the present day.  This virtue must be continuously earned, and not individually only but organizationally as well.  Perhaps, when the House and Senate and work together, we can again have the checks and balances as it was designed.

To see the notes of James Madison regarding this speech including some of the discussion that followed click here: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_917.asp

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