With all of the strong range of opinions I’ve seen people express over the past few weeks, across a variety of topics, I continue to pivot back to wondering what our founding fathers would have thought about all of it. They recognized America as a great experiment, and that the nation can and would continue to evolve over the course of time. Of all the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin is certainly one of the most famous, and perhaps the most influential in the discussion and debate over the Constitution.
As the weeks of debate were drawing to a close, and members of the Continental Congress prepared to weigh in on their approval of the document, Franklin presented the following argument:
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves…
Franklin recognized that it took compromise on the part of some of the greatest statesmen the county would ever know to establish our new government. They were never going to see eye-to-eye on every single subject, and understood that some model, albeit flawed, was better than no model, and ultimately Franklin concluded that “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
Inherent in that model was an underlying respect and understanding that others can and will have different beliefs and opinions. And to further ensure the ability for citizens to coexist without the threat of criminal prosecution because of their personal beliefs and opinions, one of the first acts of the newly established government was provided through the First Amendment to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
Newspapers, while few and far between, could print what they wanted without fear. Speeches could only be heard as far as your voice would carry. News took days to travel from city to city. And because of the logistical limits in how individuals might express their beliefs and opinions, I wonder if the founding fathers ever envisioned the threats of social persecution that seem to exist today. Today, the barriers to publishing your beliefs and opinions have become nonexistent, as technology enabled megaphones now allow an individual the capability to reach a global audience in an instant. With that capability comes tremendous responsibility, because the power and influence someone can leverage can have enormous consequences. We have started to reduce ourselves to massive electronic shouting matches, rather than use these new platforms for constructive and meaningful debate. I have a wide range of friends on Facebook, with many degrees of beliefs and opinions. I may not agree with everything every friend states, but I respect their right to state it, and I have not “unfriended” anyone in the process.
Compromise suggests an imperfect result, that no party involved got everything they desired in the outcome. We live in a nation founded on compromises, and as imperfect as it was, provided the foundation to provide the means to continue to perfect it. That process will continue long after we’re gone, as the challenges the nation faces continue to evolve over time. We must keep one eye on our past to understand the progress we’ve made since the Constitution was adopted, and the other eye on our future, and ensure we continue the journey for our children and grandchildren. Our nation has worked through challenges related to gender, race, and now sexual orientation. Each at their time was controversial, and there will continue to be controversial issues in the future. We must harness our energy for constructive debate, not shouting matches. Similarly, recognize that while you may not agree with them, that others are entitled to their beliefs. We must work towards common ground that will allow us to continue to build off the good work that our forefathers set in motion, as imperfect as it was. Franklin recognized it then, and we must continue to recognize it now.