Growing Wise With Age: A Quote From Ben Franklin

In his book The Quartet, author Joseph Ellis describes the conflicts and challenges that our founding fathers faced as they attempted to create a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and tried to bring about a new American identity to unite all citizens living across the former British Colonies. The idea of a strong national government was not popular, but George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay worked to change the minds of key stakeholders and to build support for a new government structure that created a new federal government with more power than the central government established under the Articles of Confederation. One of the people who doubted the government established in the new constitution was Benjamin Franklin, an attendee of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

 

Franklin, Ellis describes, was in his 80’s at the time of the convention and in declining health. James Wilson, a colleague of Franklin’s from Pennsylvania had to read his statements, and often times Franklin’s ideas and proposals were a bit off track, but always respectfully observed. However, even in his declining health, Franklin managed to deliver one of the wisest comments on the new constitution, demonstrating self-awareness, the influence of the quartet that Ellis describes in the book, and a positive mindset that everyone should remember as we age. In an address to the convention delivered by Wilson, Franklin stated:

 

“I confess that I do not entirely approve 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 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 pay more respect to the judgment of others…
    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…”

 

The wisest people I have met or listened to in important conversations have expressed this idea. The people who I have seen make the worst decisions or fail to be the most considerate have demonstrated the opposite mindset. When we are young, we are eager to show our value and intelligence. We put out an image of being more competent and knowledgeable than we really are. As we get older however, we start to see through study, experience, and learning that we do not actually know as much as we would like to believe and present to the world. Accepting that we don’t know everything, that we have a limited perspective and a limited amount of time to observe the world helps us be more honest and open to information which may conflict with what we already believe and with what we want to believe. To find the best outcomes and to be the most considerate of what is really taking place around us requires that we be open to changing our mind and to objectively listening to the opinions of those around us, especially sagacious leaders.

The Non-Transparent Constitutional Convention

In his book, Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch argues that some of the changes we have made to the political system of the Untied States in the last several years have been self-defeating in regards to the functioning, efficiency, and effectiveness of our government. In particular, our ever expanding pursuit of transparency and the degree to which everything is recorded and open has made real debate with tough decisions more challenging. It is hard to have a debate with compromises where unpopular policies are discussed and worked through and more successful and effective legislation is created.

 

I was reminded of this idea from Rauch while reading Joseph Ellis’ book The Quartet. Our nation was originally founded under the Articles of Confederation, which did not pull our states together in a meaningful way to unify and promote our national interests. Replacing the Articles, however, was not a simple task and drafting a new Constitution was challenging. In many ways, the success of the new Constitution required our founding fathers to cut against many of the values they hoped the Constitution would establish for all citizens. Ellis describes it this way, “Ironically, to the extent that the delegates at Philadelphia succeeded, their success was dependent on violating all of our contemporary convictions about transparency and diversity, which is one reason why their success could never be duplicated in our time.”

 

Efforts to refine government and open up governance all start from a positive point of view, the belief that sunshine will act as a disinfectant, ridding politics of corruption and illegitimate deal making. The reality however, is that transparency and other reforms to make politics more open and clear can act as sand in the gears of our political machinery. Some debates require closed doors and safe spaces for compromises to be worked out. Getting legislators to organize together requires massive efforts of coordination and often requires conversations that take place outside of the spotlight as legislators and the people they represent have conflicting views and interests. It is worth reflecting on our ever growing pursuit of open democracy and remembering that our nation required what appeared to be non-democratic and non-transparent rules to get its start in the first place.