A reflection from the new book “If You Can Keep It.”
Today as we gather with loved ones to remember the birth of America, it’s easy to forget that our country almost choked to death in the cradle. Of course we won freedom from Britain in 1783, but for the first years after that, things did not go well. Rebellions festered, Congress was bankrupt, the Continental Army was still unpaid, and it had taken all Washington’s goodwill with the troops to prevent them from marching on Congress to form a military government. Indeed, the fledgling American experiment seemed to be failing. So in the summer of 1787, those who had led the War for Independence (Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, and others) gathered with other delegates in Philadelphia to see what they might do to save the new country. That gathering came to be known as the Constitutional Convention.
The 13 colonies represented there were bitterly divided. Leaders of large and populous states like Pennsylvania had serious quarrels with their counterparts like Rhode Island; and states with slave populations warily looked to protect their “peculiar” (and wicked) institution from those states that frowned on it. What kind of Constitution could they create to bridge all of these painful differences? They wanted a small and limited government, but if it was too small there would be anarchy; and if it was too big the noble ideas of self-government and liberty would be destroyed. There were many other questions and dangers. Would a strong president turn into a king? Would a weak central government make us prone to foreign conquest? Drawing up the U.S. Constitution was a massive and unprecedented work of political prudence, and by all accounts, their efforts in that room were failing dramatically.
In fact, there came a day when most of the Founders present believed they had in fact failed — that their meeting must break up without any agreement, and the country would be forced to limp along as it was already doing, until it tore itself apart.
But it was just then, when the disagreements and arguments had mounted to an impossible height, that the eldest delegate, Benjamin Franklin, surprised the room. The man history often remembers — along with Jefferson — as among the more secular of the Founders actually gave a speech to the assembly in which he implored them toturn to God. The fact that Franklin should be the one to beseech the assembly to turn to God in prayer for an answer to their problems is evidence of their desperation, and for those of us who have forgotten how seriously all the Founders took God, it is startling. Here is his remarkable speech:
The small progress we have made after four or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other, our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and 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 danger, 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?
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 labour 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 the City be requested to officiate in that service.
As we have known for over two centuries, their prayers were answered. [Though the assembly adjourned without a vote on Franklin’s specific motion. –Ed.] All impasses were broken, compromises on all issues struck, and solutions found. There arose what all felt to be a truly remarkable — almost odd — willingness for each side to set aside its concerns for the good of the whole. The spirit of selflessness and compromise that came over this body of opinionated, brilliant, and principled men was in the end sufficient for them to ratify the great document called the Constitution.
Even participants marveled at what had happened. George Washington wrote about it in a letter to his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette:
It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are also different from each other in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices) would unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.
James Madison was even more amazed:
The real wonder is that so many difficulties should have been surmounted, and surmounted with unanimity almost as unprecedented as it must have been unexpected. It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.
It is not less than horrifying to consider what might have happened if the 55 men gathered in that summer of 1787 had failed to do what they had set out to do. Could the stakes have been higher, knowing the role America has played in the history of the world since that time? Could the timing of what they did have been more desperate?
The French Revolution, which was just about to begin, would bitterly divide many of the founders, most notably John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. So that summer represented a swiftly closing window of opportunity into an unprecedented world, a world of ordered liberty that could last and would last — and somehow the founders got through it just in time. Somehow.
Why is it too much for us to suppose — as Franklin, Washington, Adams, and so many others did — that the finger of the Almighty might indeed have been involved? This was an idea that did not die with the founders but lived and was kindled afresh by Abraham Lincoln, who faced obstacles every bit as difficult as what the founders faced, and who came to the same conclusions about how they must be surmounted.
And it is an idea that must not die with this generation. May God help us to keep it alive, not just for our sake, but for the sake of all those beyond our shores who hope to taste the freedoms we enjoy, and for all those yet to be born, too.
This is an excerpt from the author’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty,reprinted by his kind permission.