Two hundred and forty-one years ago today, a group of men gathered in Philadelphia and launched a grand experiment in self-governance. It took a war to fully put liberty into practice, and two attempts at forming a united coalition before the former British colonies settled on the model of government we know today, but the decision to declare independence turned out to be one of the world’s clarifying moments. It created a new kind of nation, at least aspirationally. Rather than binding ourselves on the basis of language and/or ethnicity, the United States of America puts its identity into the law — a law that governed all, presumed privilege for none, and allowed people of all ranks to thrive according to their abilities and their efforts.
We have not always exercised that American exceptionalism perfectly, of course, but we have always aspired to its perfection. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the first volume of Democracy in America, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” De Tocqueville wrote that a quarter-century before we fought a civil war to end our largest fault in our founding — slavery — but it was true then and true now. We struggle to correct our errors and faults, but we persevere in those pursuits in order to demonstrate the wisdom and justice of self-governance based on the rule of law.
In this endeavor, we often find ourselves tipping over into despair, demanding perfection and rueing the consequences of falling short. Benjamin Franklin addressed these issues at the 1787 convention that produced the most remarkable political foundation in history. At a moment when delegates appeared frustrated that their conception of perfection had not been achieved, Franklin reminded them that they were part of a process, not an end, and that the delegates had overlooked the stunning scope of their creation:
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. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. 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. 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?
It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans 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, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends, on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
We are all, 241 years later, part of that same grand experiment in self-governance and liberty. We have plenty of objections to the process, and to whom we have entrusted with it, but let us on this day recognize that the alternatives to this process are far worse. Not for nothing did Franklin reportedly remark after the convention that it had delivered “a republic, if you can keep it” (a quote that some maintain is apocryphal). Our role and our duty is to keep it, and to ensure the survival of this grand experiment in liberty and law.
Happy Independence Day!