"Speech to the Convention" Summary

The "Speech to the Convention" was written by Benjamin Franklin and delivered on his behalf at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

  • In this brief speech, Franklin seeks to persuade his fellow delegates to sign the newly drafted Constitution, which is not perfect but "near to perfection."
  • Franklin cautions against believing too strongly in the infallibility of one's own judgment, admitting that while he finds fault with some parts of the Constitution, he may very well be proven wrong.
  • Noting that other countries expect the US to fail, Franklin stresses the importance of appearing unified in support of the Constitution.

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Last Updated on January 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

Introduction

Benjamin Franklin’s "Speech to the Convention" was presented on September 17th, 1787, the final day of the Constitutional Convention. The speech was read to the delegates by James Wilson, as Franklin was too weak to deliver it himself. Read just before the signing was to commence, Franklin's speech encouraged his fellow delegates to throw their support behind the newly drafted Constitution. Though he, like many of the men present, had misgivings about some of the contents of the Constitution, Franklin sought to impress upon the delegates the importance of presenting a unified front to both foreign nations and constituents back home. Acknowledging that no document crafted by infallible men will ever be perfect, Franklin nevertheless asserts that the Constitution they have collectively drafted comes astonishingly close. These brief remarks, which were recorded by James Madison, are remembered today not only for their historical significance but also as a masterful example of rhetoric.

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Summary

Franklin opens his speech with a decisive caveat: he does not agree with every section of the Constitution as it currently stands. However, Franklin goes on to explain that although he does not agree with these sections of the Constitution at present, this does not preclude him from changing his mind about them later as circumstances change, arguments are made and rebutted, or changes in values occur. Indeed, he recalls many important instances when on the emergence of more information or upon deeper reflection, his opinions have shifted drastically from his original views. Therefore, it is prudent, he says, to doubt even those beliefs you hold most certain and pay heed to the judgment of others—especially when their judgment conflicts with your own—rather than dismissing it outright.

Franklin attributes this insight to the wisdom of age; the older he grows, the more he prioritizes the judgment of others over his own, despite people’s natural tendency to believe themselves infallible. In order to support this observation, Franklin provides two anecdotes. The first involves Richard Steele, a political writer and editor from the United Kingdom, who allegedly wrote to the Pope that the only doctrinal differences between the Catholic Church and the Church of England’s respective certainty in their doctrines was that “the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong.” This statement is, of course, tautological and highlights the improbability of one religious sect possessing an absolutely accurate doctrine, while the doctrine of every other religious sect is completely fallacious.

The second anecdote is of a more humorous persuasion, as Franklin describes a French woman who embodies the idea that people instinctively value their own opinions above all others. He quotes her as allegedly complaining, “I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right—Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison” (only I am always right). With this comical anecdote, Franklin bids the delegates to reconsider their own quibbles with particular sections of the Constitution, inviting them to question whether its flaws are perhaps a product of their own skewed judgment.

Franklin goes on to emphasize the necessity of a Constitution and a new structure of government, declaring that a well-functioning government can be nothing but a blessing to the people it governs. Franklin also warns that while governments such as these tend to be well-functioning for the first few years, they can easily fall into despotism if their citizen population becomes so corrupt that no other form of government remains tenable. This foreboding suggestion is juxtaposed against Franklin’s resounding endorsement of the Constitution that the convention has drafted.

He acknowledges that whenever a group of fallible men gather with their respective opinions, flaws, and opportunism, it is impossible for them together to draft an altogether infallible governing document. Thus, Franklin remarks that he is astonished that this Constitution comes “so near to perfection as it does.” He believes that the enemies of the United States of America, namely Britain, will be likewise astonished to see the states’ ability to collaborate as a single nation, for they undoubtedly expected that the states would immediately split into thirteen warring nations. 

Franklin gives his unequivocal consent to the Constitution and vows to keep any of the concerns he has voiced during the convention hereafter to himself. He urges the other delegates to do the same and warns against spreading their reservations about the Constitution. If the states or Congress refuse to ratify the document, Franklin argues, this would provide ample proof to foreign powers that the United States are divided and vulnerable. However, Franklin explains that the appearance of unanimous support is not just important to present to foreign nations, but also to their own constituents back home. The efficacy of a well-administered government to govern their citizens successfully relies, in large part, on those citizens believing the government to be well-administered and therefore submitting to its governance.

Thus, Franklin concludes his speech with an appeal for the delegates who still have doubts about some elements of the Constitution to “on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility” and prioritize the appearance of unanimity above their personal opinions.

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