Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Few Words of Advice from Benjamin Franklin

On the warm Monday morning of June 11, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and resumed their discussion of how the states should be represented in the legislature of the new government. Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed that representation be according to "respective numbers of free inhabitants" in one house and one vote per state in the other. Other delegates, such as John Rutledge of South Carolina and John Dickinson of Delaware, suggested that states be represented according to how much income they contributed.

Rufus King of Massachusetts pointed out that the latter rule was ultimately about trade power, since income would no doubt be drawn largely from import duties. "If actual contributions were to be the rule," said King, according to James Madison's notes, "the non-importing States, as Cont. and N. Jersey, wd. be in a bad situation indeed." 

This was not the first day that the delegates had broached the subject of state representation. Apparently their discussion the previous Saturday was not as stately as the records suggest, because Benjamin Franklin had taken the time on Sunday to put his thoughts on the matter in writing. His remarks, read to the Committee on the Whole by James Wilson, began this way:

"It has given me a great pleasure to observe that till this point, the proportion of representation, came before us, our debates were carried on with great coolness & temper. If any thing of a contrary kind, has on this occasion appeared. I hope it will not be repeated; for we are sent here to consult not to contend with each other; and declarations of a fixed opinion, and of determined resolution, never to change it, neither enlighten nor convince us. Positiveness and warmth on one side, naturally beget their like on the other; and tend to create and augment discord & division in a great concern, wherein harmony & Union are extremely necessary to give weight to our Councils, and render them effectual in promoting & securing the common good." 

We may not be writing a Constitution in 2017, but we are testing the meaning of the one those delegates wrote that summer in Philadelphia. Is it too late for us to stop contending and begin consulting? I'll be thinking of Franklin's words as I continue my work today.

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