The Birthday Last Wednesday

-By John Armor

Confessions of a Very Old Man

My name is Benjamin. 
Here I lie in Philadelphia. 
I caught lightning with a kite. 
I wrote an Almanac. 
I perfected a postal service. 
I coaxed a treaty with France. 
But most important of all, 
221 years ago last week 
I encouraged 39 men 
To sign a four-page document 
To give you a republic, 
If you can keep it.

Yes, the 17th of September was the 221st birthday of the Constitution, and I choose to talk about it through the three great contributions that Benjamin Franklin made to that document. Plus, of course, his summary comment on the steps of Independence Hall when the delegates were leaving for the last time,

A woman approached Dr. Franklin and said, “What kind of government have you given us?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Franklin’s first contribution was the Patents and Trademarks Clause. He had traveled in Europe and been inducted into all the learned societies of Europe. Again and again, he heard instances where one person created a successful idea, product or book, only to have it stolen and repeated by others with no payment, not so much as a by-your-leave.

So, Franklin urged his friend, James Madison to propose this clause. On the recommendation of Franklin it was included in the Constitution with little debate necessary. It gives Congress the power, “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries….”

It can well be argued that all of the economic success of the United States, far outstripping all other nations ever in human history, in creativity and business development, is founded on this particular clause.

Franklin’s other great contribution to the Constitution was his speech on the last day, urging all the delegates to set aside whatever misgivings they might have and sign the document. This one great speech is drawn from his long and able career in both government and private business. It deserves to be repeated in full:

“I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said “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.
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other. I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution.”

Franklin made one other contribution to the success of that Convention. With difficulty he rose to his feet during the signing and said to George Washington, in the chair, “I’ve wondered, sir, these long months whether the sun on the back of your chair was a rising sun, or a setting sun. I know now, sir, it is a rising sun.”

That chair, with its rising sun on its back, is still there in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, not far from where Franklin lies buried.

John Armor is a graduate of Yale, and Maryland Law School, and has 33 years practice at law in the US Supreme Court. Mr. Armor has authored seven books and over 750 articles. Armor happily lives on a mountaintop in the Blue Ridge. He can be reached at:

Copyright Publius Forum 2001