Benjamin Franklin

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What is the meaning and symbolism in Benjamin Franklin's "Speech in the Convention"?

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In his "Speech in the Convention," Benjamin Franklin expresses his reservations about the Constitution yet also his support for it. He encourages members of the Convention to not speak of their criticisms of the Constitution to those outside, fearing that this would hinder the document's adoption.

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Benjamin Franklin took this opportunity for a speech to express both his support for and reservations about the Constitution, which they were in the process of drafting. He begins by admitting openly that there are certain aspects of the Constitution with which he disagrees summarily. He recognizes that the Framers have all brought their own prejudices, predispositions, and opinions into the draft, and those are not easily teased out—especially in such an emotionally charged time. The drafters of the Constitution are perhaps responding too vehemently against government as practiced in England, but Franklin recognizes that it is better to take too harsh a stance and dial it back than to scrap the idea altogether.

He also acknowledges that in spite of his reservations, the Constitution has his full and utmost support. He refuses to even consider discussing his reservations outside of the walls of the drafting room, because he does not want to spread dissent for such an important document. He also urges the other drafters to do the same, recognizing that by doing that, he would jeopardize the overall support of the new document.

In the end, Benjamin Franklin uses this speech to voice the democratic process—while there are some issues with which we may not agree, the principle of democracy stands champion above the rest—and it is that principle which we must defend wholeheartedly.

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Franklin says he will support the Constitution even though he objects to certain parts of it. However, his speech has less to do with the specifics of the Constitution than it does with expressing faith in the process that produced it. For example, Franklin says of the Convention, “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.” He says that “Enemies” no doubt expect the Convention to fail “like the councils of Babel,” an allusion to the Bliblical Babel where people could not communicate because everyone spoke a different language. He supports the Constitution “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” 

He also says he will sacrifice his personal criticisms, which he has  “never whispered a Syllable of“ outside the Convention, for the sake of the greater good, and charges his colleagues to do the same. It would be possible, he says, to block adoption of the Constitution if members went home and spoke publicly about their reservations. Instead, members should support the Constitution in its current form, in order to preserve the image of the Convention’s “real or apparent Unanimity.”

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Franklin begins his speech with what sounds like homespun wisdom that has resulted from living a long life.  He acknowledges that the longer he lives, the less certainty he possesses.  He observes that men and institutions, specifically church sects, are inclined to think they they alone are correct in their judgments.  

Franklin admits that the Constitution is imperfect and only really represents the current thinking of those who have crafted it.  But for him, that is enough, because without at least a general governing document, the new country could return to a condition of despotism.

He vows that he won't voice his doubts abroad; what he says in Philadelphia will stay in Philadelphia.  He says that his, and every other framer of the Constitution's job, is to support the document and carry out its administration.

Franklin doesn't use much symbolism in the speech, other than an allusion to the biblical Tower of Babel; its construction was thwarted by God, who apparently objected to a tower that would reach Heaven. Franklin uses the story symbolically to compare its non-completion to the detractors of the Constitution who hoped for its failure.

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Franklin readily admits that he doesn't agree with everything that's in the Constitution, although he doesn't say which bits he disagrees with. He says that in the wisdom of his old age, he has realized that there were times that he was certain he was right only to learn, some time later, how wrong he was. He admits that this may be the case here.

He says that group of men who come together for a specific purpose, such as this (drawing up the Constitution) will necessarily bring "their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views," and that any "instrument"--document--they draw up will not be perfect. Nonetheless, he is astonished at how perfect the Constitution they have written actually is. 

He suspects their enemies expect them to turn on one another like the builders of the Tower of Babel (who God confounded by making them all speak in different tongues, thereby ensuring the tower would never be finished). 

He says it is probably not the best document possible as perfection isn't possible, and he asks all members of the convention to keep their private contentions to themselves when they go home to their various states to help ensure that all states ratify it. What lies before them now is to do all they can to ensure it is well administered (assuming they manage to get it ratified). 

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