A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Friday, September 17, 2010
I Agree To This Constitution
Speech By: Benjamin Franklin -
delivered on his behalf by James Wilson
Title: I agree to this Constitution
Date: September 17, 1787
Location: Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PA
Occasion: Signing of the Constitution
It is a short address, but even given its brevity, Franklin was too weak to deliver it himself on the final day of the Constitutional Convention. James Wilson, a fellow Pennsylvanian, did the honors on his behalf.
A troubling misgiving confronted the 39 delegates that day. Whether or not the divisions and debates and differences that produced the document before them, could also produce a nation, was a question very much in doubt. Still, in Franklin’s mind, it was better than nothing. But, as befit the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, that sentiment needed to be related far more elegantly. It was.
He begins by referring to the various doubts about the document that all the framers held: “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:”
Then he speaks of the wisdom of age: “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.” We may all be wrong about the positions we hold most strongly, he is telling them - do not be so sure of yourself.
He then speaks of the joint wisdom possessed by the individual members of their august body. But, he also warns this means there are joint prejudices, passions, errors of opinion, local interests, and selfish views to consider as well.
Finally, he gets to the heart of the matter: “Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.”
In concluding, he does what many good speeches do, he sums up his salient points with a call for joint action: “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.”
They went on then, Franklin, and the 38 other delegates who heard his call, to place their names on the document they had labored through a hot Philadelphia summer to craft.
On this, the 223rd anniversary of the signing of that document which truly made this a nation, it is wise to ask - could we do as well today? In the end, that document about which Franklin, and so many others, had such troubling doubts, is what has allowed our nation itself to grow old.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.