Benjamin Franklin And The Constitution


Michael Benton, Contributor

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benjamin franklin and the constitutionIn his elder years, Benjamin Franklin was regarded as a wise and experienced statesman whose words were to be respected in any debate. When Franklin attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787, held in Philadelphia, he did so in an honorary role without becoming mired in the common arguments of the delegates. Franklin's opinion was sought on many matters and he became a staunch defender of certain rights that he felt were integral to a healthy democracy. The first and foremost of these rights was the freedom of speech. Franklin believed that all of liberty depended on the freedom to voice one's opinion and that the places where rulers could censor the public would never know liberty. Franklin was a champion among the men who had led the country to Independence and his assertion on the necessity of free speech was not taken lightly. Although he did not participate in any particular committee on the Constitution, his influence was certainly present. Ben Franklin's signature on the Constitution was from the oldest man present as he had reached 81 years of age.

It was only two years before, in 1785, that Benjamin Franklin had returned from his diplomatic post in France. It was there that he had succeeded in one crucial aspect of the Revolutionary War, securing an alliance with the greatest opponent of the British. The military support of the French, including their naval might, allowed George Washington's army to pin Cornwallis in Yorktown without an escape to the sea, forcing his surrender and the decisive victory of the war. Franklin was a leading member of the American delegation during the peace talks that led to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The respect he garnered from foreign diplomats was developed out of his long career as a transatlantic celebrity with a reputation for brilliance. Before he was a diplomat, Franklin had been an inventor and scientist renowned for his advances in the field of electricity and oceanography. Beginning his life as a printer and publisher, his annual "Poor Richard's Almanack" was a hit in the American colonies as well as Europe. Long before the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin had asserted himself as a leader and a trend-setter for all things American.

In discussing Benjamin Franklin and the Constitution, there is often one subject that is left out. Franklin, in the last decade of his life, became a staunch abolitionist and proponent on manumission through the Constitution. He joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and became its President in 1785. Franklin freed his own two slaves but worried that freedom would not be enough. He wrote a series of letters to the public at large discussing the rights of freed slaves to receive a proper education and aid in their adjustment to free society. Franklin petitioned the Constitutional Convention on the matter, but his efforts were in vain and the issue of slavery was punted for another generation of Americans to decide; this mistake turned out to be very grave indeed.