Benjamin Franklin’s Advice to a Stalled Congress

In light of the recent, lengthy and tenacious deliberations in the House and Senate over the debt ceiling, cutting & spending, and whether or not to have a balanced budget, I thought some words from one of our most esteemed Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, might be in order. (It’s not the same situation exactly, but being at an impasse and frustration with lack of progress seems to be sufficiently parallel.)

Thursday, June 28, 1787.

Ben Franklin - 1789 - by Charles Willson Peale

Ben Franklin - 1789 - by Charles Willson Peale

The colonies had won their independence, but the Articles of Confederation had proven sorely inadequate to the task. From the countryside to the halls of government, there were threats of rebellion and anarchy. So, 50+ delegates, each with their own personal and local concerns and egos, spent a long, hot summer in Philadelphia trying to hammer out a better document. Sometimes, it got pretty ugly. Several returned home in disgust. General George Washington presided over the convention, but even he seemed at a loss how to get the remaining representatives to stop insulting one another long enough to get something meaningful accomplished.

Then, the normally patient Benjamin Franklin, no longer hail & hearty at 81, decided he was fed up with the situation. So, as the day’s wranglings came to an end, he took it upon himself to stand and address the problem with the following plea:

“Mr. President,

The small progress we have made after four or five weeks’ close attendance and continual reasonings with each other — our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ayes — is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the 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 understandings. In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of dangers, we had daily prayer 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 that 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 shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages. And, what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, 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.”

Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, by James Madison

I think it interesting to note that, despite being a Deist, Franklin not only quoted Scripture but recommended prayer for the purpose of asking God for help. Normally, Deism by definition rejects special revelation (i.e., the Bible) or God’s “interference” in either Nature or the affairs of Men. Perhaps this call to prayer is one reason why some have suggested that Franklin reverted to Christian orthodoxy in his later years. In any case, this sort of thing is sure to give typical separation-of-church-and-statists apoplexy.

Incidentally, after Roger Sherman of CT seconded the motion, some discussion ensued on the matter. Edmund Randolph then called for a sermon on July 4th (six days later) and moved that they begin having prayer readings every morning of the Convention. This one was seconded by Franklin himself, and it was accepted without formal vote.

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