Good morning. It’s Monday, September 17, 2018. On this date 231 years ago, more than three dozen patriots in attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia affixed their signatures to a historic, if highly flawed, document. It began: “We the People…”
The U.S. Constitution didn’t represent all the people, of course. Women were not represented in Philly; African-Americans still lived in bondage on these shores. And as the deliberations dragged on that fateful summer, one of the signers, a wise octogenarian, found himself ruminating about a sun painted on the back of the convention president’s chair — and about how difficult it was for artists to make it clear whether they were depicting a rising or setting sun.
On September 17, 1787, however, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin decided that the document presented for approval signified a rising sun, and the great man asked fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson to read aloud the words he had written urging acceptance.
Franklin began by noting that he did not “entirely approve” of the document, but believed it was the best that could be produced, given the differences of opinion present in the hall. He concluded by urging his fellow members of the convention “who may still have objections to it, would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility and … put his name to this instrument.”
A large majority of the 55 delegates did so, and their work in Philadelphia was done. Our work, as their descendants, is never done. I’ll have further word on this idea in a moment. First, I’d direct you, as I do each weekday, to our , which aggregates an array of columns and stories spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors this morning, including the following:
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Pragmatist Wing of the Democratic Party Strikes Back. Bill Scher that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s post-primary comments tried to put the socialist wing in its place, and hinted at confrontations to come in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Trump and Puerto Rico Deaths. In a , I explore the inexact science behind calculations of “excess mortality” following natural disasters and other cataclysmic events.
California Candidate Frisked Closely by Fact Checkers. Bill Zeiser on two assessments of remarks by GOP gubernatorial nominee John Cox.
Helping Small Businesses in a Tight Labor Market. In RealClearPolicy, Elaine Parker policies to address labor shortages in an otherwise booming economy.
Africa’s Reform Conundrum. In RealClearWorld, George B.N. Ayitty that the urgent need for economic policy corrections in many countries is being undercut by reformers’ credibility issues.
Carl Sagan’s Problems With Plato. Ross Pomeroy in RealClearScience.
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The 21st century has seen a resurgence of reverence for the Framers of our democracy, some of it emanating from members of a potent political faction in the Republican Party who derived much inspiration from the fighting spirit of the Boston Tea Party.
To these history-loving conservatives, today’s politics are infected by the impure influences of money, self-interest, and compromise. “We the People!” they proclaim, as if all the answers to today’s problems could be solved by divining the will of the Founding Fathers. To these partisans, compromise has become a dirty word.
I don’t want to make a partisan point, especially at a time when Democrats are engaging in all manner of character assassination to try and block a Supreme Court appointee, but eschewing compromise under the color of constitutional fealty is the very definition of absurdity. Regional, ideological, and parochial considerations were in the air in Philadelphia in 1787, and influenced the Constitution itself, both in its drafting and its ratification. The Framers sought to resolve the divergent interests of big states and small states, slave-holding states and free states, delegates who wanted a strong executive branch and those who favored a weak one. The product of those deliberations and was a series of concessions by all sides. The document itself was one big compromise
Modern liberals also give short shrift to the Framers, for their own partisan reasons. In the councils of academia — and today’s Democratic Party — anyone daring to speak a kind word about the Framers must first be undermined with registrations of disgust at the Constitutional Convention language equating slaves to only three-fifths of a person.
This conceit is historic nonsense. It was the Southern states that wanted slaves counted fully, the Northern representatives not at all. Northerners, including Franklin, were trying to constrict the size of the Southern states’ delegations in the House of Representatives as a way of limiting their influence. It was an early proxy fight over the paradox of a new nation declaring its independence out of a desire to be free while retaining the unholy institution of slavery.
Tragically, the argument would not be solved by debate, but rather by force of arms at places such as Shiloh, Gettysburg, and Cold Harbor. (It was only after , that President Lincoln felt emboldened to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.)
But on this day in 1787, an old man with a gift for words — as well as a happy talent for innovation, jollity, and human friendship — passed along his thoughts about the genius of a document he conceded was deeply flawed.
“I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution,” Ben Franklin opined in words written down by James Madison. “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.”
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter .