Speech to the Convention

by Benjamin Franklin

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Constitutional Convention took place in Philadelphia from May to September 1787, four years after Britain ceded their claim to the American colonies through the Treaty of Paris (1783). The convention was not originally intended to draft the Constitution but rather to amend and update the Articles of Confederation. Adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1777, the Articles of Confederation was the original governing document of the United States. The Articles had soon proven ineffective, however, creating a weak federal government that couldn’t exercise meaningful power over the growing states. When the delegates convened in 1787 to remedy these issues, they concluded that the Articles of Confederation were fundamentally flawed and abandoned their original purpose of revision in favor of creating an entirely new system of government. The result of this convention was the creation of the United States Constitution, which remains the official governing document of the United States to this day.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the foremost political figures of the day, wrote this speech to close the Constitutional Convention after more than four months of work and to immediately precede the signing of the new Constitution. At eighty-one years old, Franklin was too weak to deliver the speech endorsing the Constitution himself and so had his fellow Pennsylvanian delegate, James Wilson, read the speech aloud to the convention. Although drafting a new Constitution was not the convention’s original purpose and many (including Franklin himself) still had lingering doubts about the Constitution's contents, thirty-nine of the fifty-five attending delegates ultimately signed the Constitution.

The primary purpose of Franklin’s speech was to persuade any undecided delegates to support the Constitution. Consequently, Franklin employs many persuasive techniques throughout the text, as well as a few interesting cultural and literary allusions. According to Aristotle, successful rhetoric utilizes three categories of argument in order to persuade its audience: logos, pathos, and ethos. Logos is an appeal to logic and empirical reasoning, while pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions. Ethos refers to rhetoric that relies on an appeal to the reputation and trustworthiness of the speaker.

At this time, Benjamin Franklin was one of the most influential and widely respected founding fathers, renowned not only in the United States but internationally as well. Ethos is thus interesting to consider in the context of this speech, for while Franklin does directly reference his age—suggesting that it is a source of wisdom—he never explicitly references his reputation within the speech itself. By selecting Franklin to speak, the pro-Constitution delegates were likely hoping to exploit the eighty-one-year old’s venerable reputation to sway those who remained uncertain about this new system of government, and in pledging his unwavering support of the Constitution in such a public forum, Franklin lent instant credibility to the document. 

Within the text of his speech, Franklin demonstrates a mastery of both logos and pathos, opening with a complicated logical argument about the nature of human fallibility and ending with an appeal to the delegates’ patriotism. The initial paragraph of the speech is humorous in tone yet ultimately philosophical in content, asking the delegates to doubt their judgment and recognize that their own opinions and logic are not infallible. This section of the speech also reveals the extent to which emerging American political thought was influenced by Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, a French philosopher who satirized the alleged infallibility of the church and mocked people’s often unsupported self-confidence in their own uneducated opinions.

Franklin’s humorous anecdote about the French woman’s comments to her sister brings levity to his remarks while also highlighting the close relationship between...

(This entire section contains 919 words.)

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France and the US. During this period, France was not just a close military ally but also a source of great cultural influence. Franklin himself served as the US ambassador to France from 1776–1785 and, along with many of his colleagues in the Constitutional Convention, was fluent in French (as is evidenced by his use of French in the speech). 

Franklin’s argument that the delegates should seek to present a unified front to both foreign nations and their own citizens is ultimately rooted in both pathos and logos. Franklin clearly identifies the objective benefits of supporting the Constitution, even as he simultaneously makes deliberate, repeated emotional appeals to the delegates’ sense of loyalty and love of country. Referencing the other nations who are determined to see the US fail, Franklin suggests that it is the delegates’ patriotic duty to prioritize the continued existence of the country over any personal reservations about the document.

Ultimately, Franklin’s speech is not just an expression of his confidence in the Constitution, but a broader reflection on the United States itself, one that reveals both his optimism and anxieties for the future. In the eleven years after formally declaring their independence from Britain, the United States had struggled to transition from a collection of rebellious colonies into a stable democracy, as evidenced by the failures of the Articles of Confederation. As other nations watched America’s novel experiment in democratic government unfold, peace and prosperity in the US remained fragile, a fact which Franklin acknowledges in his speech. Though success was by no means guaranteed to the United States, Franklin felt that a strong central government was necessary for the long-term stability of the country. Franklin’s carefully crafted speech is thus a powerful piece of rhetoric, designed to unite the delegates of the Constitutional Convention behind the document that now stands as the foundation of modern-day American government.

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