Benjamin Franklin was 81 years old and nearing the end of his life when the 1787 Constitutional Convention took place. He had already been an active participant in many of the pivotal moments in the founding of the country. He had signed the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris. He proved to be instrumental at the Constitutional Convention as well, helping the process to move forward and recommending the adoption of document despite its faults.
Franklin's Articles of Confederation
Prior to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin wrote some "Short Hints" for uniting the colonies as well as the treatise, "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union." He presented the latter at the Second Continental Congress in July 1775 as a draft for a future, more formal document.
After the Declaration of Independence, members of the Congress drafted a plan for the new government. Although Franklin was not a member of the drafting committee, they did have his recommendations before them. They adopted some of his proposals, including the ideas of establishing a common treasury and an executive committee. They did not use others, such as choosing representatives according to population.
As usual, Franklin's vision was farther-reaching than many of his peers in terms of independence and autonomy of the colonies. His articles granted powers that the colonies, still under British domination, did not yet have. Those charged with drafting the official Articles of Confederation created a more practical, conservative plan than Franklin's. From its ratification in 1781 until the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, the Articles of Confederation served as the governing guidelines for the country.
What Was the Constitutional Convention?
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was a gathering of delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies. Rhode Island opted out. From the time it convened in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania State Hall May 25 until it adjourned September 17, the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention were a closely guarded secret.
The reason for the secrecy was to make it easier for the framers of the Constitution to do their work. There was already enough dissention in the ranks without the outside influence of public opinion. Also, those assembled wished to be able to discuss the issues at hand freely without worrying about the public taking offence.
To ensure no information leaked, a chaperone accompanied delegate Benjamin Franklin, well-known for his loquaciousness, to social gatherings. His job was heading off Franklin if he seemed about to divulge proprietary knowledge.
Who Led the Constitutional Convention?
General George Washington led the Constitutional Convention as the elected president of the attending body. All in all, 55 delegates attended. The number of delegates each colony sent depended upon its population, and Pennsylvania sent the greatest number at eight delegates.
Besides Washington and Franklin, other founding fathers in attendance included Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Rutledge. While Washington ensured order among the attendees during the many discussions and debates, Rutledge chaired the committee tasked with drafting the Constitution.
Franklin's Role in Creating the Constitution
Although arguably the most accomplished writer at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin did not contribute to the actual writing of the final document. He did have an important hands-on role in the process however.
When delegates could not agree how to determine the number of Congressional representatives for each state, they decided to form a Grand Committee, comprised of one representative from each colony present, to resolve the matter. Ben Franklin was the appointee from Pennsylvania.
Franklin proposed that each state send one Congressman to the House of Representatives per 40,000 in population. In contrast, every state would have an equal vote in the Senate.
Franklin also suggested that the House of Representatives should have the sole power to increase the salaries of government employees and to draft new legislation for fundraising. Once approved, Franklin's ideas became known as the Connecticut Compromise, which the general assembly adopted July 17, allowing the process to move forward.
Benjamin Franklin and the Constitution
After a summer of long, drawn-out debates, arguments and dissention, a final vote on the newly drafted document was drawing near. At 81, Franklin was not only exhausted by the convention but also worried about the nation. He knew that the loosely knit colonies needed a strong central government to unite them, and he despaired of the contentious delegates ever reaching an agreement.
He wrote a closing speech that, due to Franklin's ill health, a colleague delivered to the assemblage. In it, he encouraged the delegates to put aside their disagreements like he intended to do and approve the document for the good of the nation. Subsequently, they voted to adopt the Constitution and released it to the public. Rhode Island was the 13th state to ratify it in 1790.