I have Volume I and II of Ben Franklin: A Biography in His Own Words, edited by Thomas Fleming, given me by a family member who thought I could benefit from his wisdom. This book includes most of what he wrote in his Autobiography, that he wrote in the form of a letter for to his son William in the summer of 1771. I too wrote my autobiography well before the last of my life of how my religious beliefs shifted. I wrote it for my daughters, titled Our Father Not in Heaven.
This Christmas, my daughter Gay Lin sent me Debate on the Constitution, also in two volumes. And the first of the many articles taken from what appeared in the press and private correspondence in Part I is Ben Franklin’s speech at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787, “I Agree in the Constitution with All Its Faults”. He was then 81 years of age and had earned the right to be right, but in that speech he was cautious and in fact argued the value of doubt:
“I confess that I do not entirely approve of the Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it. For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being obig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. 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.”
Franklin supports this proposition by reference to those who are sure of themselves religiously: “Most Men indeed as well as most Sects of Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only Difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Roman Church is infallible, and the Church of England in never in the Wrong. But tho’ many private Persons think as highly of their own Infallibility, as that of their Sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a little Dispute with her Sister, said, I don’t know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with no body but myself that’s always in the right. Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison/”
Has there ever been a more persuasive argument made for uncertainty than that made in good humor by Ben Franklin at the close of our Constitutional Convention?