The Constitution That Almost Wasn’t


Several weeks into the convention things had bogged down and it seemed the whole project would completely fall apart. There was disagreement on every provision and detail with not hope of a compromise. Benjamin Franklin, the “Mentor” of the convention, rose during an opening in the series of heated speakers to break the logjam with the address below. He proposed that a chaplain be appointed to minister to the delegates by opening each day with a prayer and “a portion of heavenly wisdom.” He also proposed a three-day recess for everyone to cool off by gathering together on an informal basis to work out their disagreements.

When they reconvened the convention had been transformed, both in the atmosphere and the hearts of the delegates. There was a spirit of unity and harmony in the room and they began to make much progress until they completed the new Constitution. The change was so dramatic that the delegates who recalled the convention express their amazement at the fact that the convention ended in success. That’s how bad it was. If it wasn’t for God’s intervention in the hearts of those delegates we might not have our Constitution today and the world would be a different place.

Franklin’s address is below:

Mr. President—The slow progress we have made, after four or five weeks’ close attendance and continual reasoning with each other—our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many nays as yeas—is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and examined the different forms of those republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist. And we have viewed modern states all round Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the Divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need his assistance?

I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘Except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves become a reproach and by-word down to future fortunate circumstance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Benjamin Franklin

28 June, 1787


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