At the end of 2020, Remembering Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson

Oklahoma City, December 30, 2020 – Just a few years after the American Revolution had secured independence for the United States of America, the nation was deeply divided.
In Philadelphia, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked. The original governing document of the United States had not worn well. 
Initially intending merely to make the Articles of Confederation workable, the delegates were embarked on a search for a new framework for democratic, republican and federalist governance.

Divisions in early America were many, including those centered around the scourge of slavery. But honesty leads the historian to reflect: The most divisive issue for the delegates was not human bondage, but practical politics. 

Bigger states wanted a national Legislature based on population; smaller states insisted the former colonies be equal – one-state-one vote on national laws and policy.

The venerable Benjamin Franklin rarely spoke at the Convention, but he was worried about the enterprise. On the morning of June 28, he gained recognition and rose to speak.

According to James Madison’s notes, Franklin told his brethren the delegates seemed “to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it.” He recounted deliberations, as delegates cast about for one model or another of governance from past or present, finding none “suitable to our circumstances.”

Despite his reputation as a skeptic in matters of faith, it seemed odd to him “That we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?” 
Franklin took the group, which included both friends and rivals of his long and storied life, back to the days of that War for Independence, the work of the Continental Congress, and remembrance that “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.”

Franklin wondered: “Have we forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? 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?”

He moved 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.”

In discussion, delegates admitted a lack of funds – the means with which to pay a preacher – had caused the lack of prayer. They fussed among themselves for some time, and never got around to passing the motion before adjourning for the day.

But perhaps the point had been made. 
Deliberations in Philadelphia became more productive. 
A Legislature of two houses – one apportioned equally by state (with two votes for each in the upper chamber) and the other by population (the lower chamber) emerged in the Constitution Madison wrote. A new Constitution of separated powers was sent to the people — not perfect, but a start.

On September 17, 1787, the nation began to consider the Constitution. By March 1789, it was ratified. Thirteen months later, in spring 1790, Ben Franklin died.

Representing American interests in France, Thomas Jefferson was not at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The author of the Declaration of Independence, a slave owner, had planted seeds for the destruction of slavery in his greatest work.
Later, after the seminal presidency of George Washington, John Adams — passionate foe of slavery – would be the second president, for but one term. 
Jefferson was the third president, for two terms.

In power, the two revolutionary allies became bitterly estranged. 
Adams was the nationalist and an advocate of central power, and Jefferson the libertarian foe of centralization.

Jefferson, target of some of the most vicious personal attacks printed in the newspapers of his day, had nonetheless settled into a mature frame of mind, believing, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.”

Saddened over their divisions, Adams wrote on January 1, 1812, wishing the Sage of Monticello a Happy New Year. Slowly, across the miles, they reconciled in their latter years, exchanging warm, even tender, letters discussing the weighty matters of their day.

And then came the time that comes to us all.
Late on the Fourth of July, 1826, John Adams, 90, passed from this world  ( into the next. 

In words of tribute to his friend and foe – they didn’t call themselves ‘frenemies’ as is the parlance now — Adams said in his final moments, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” 

Actually, five hours before, the southerner, at 82, had died on his estate, but the system of human government Thomas Jefferson helped establish has endured, thus far. 
It remains even as his memory is denigrated in the halls of academe and among powerful players in the contemporary version of the political party he founded. 

I read somewhere that nothing is inevitable – neither the rise and fall of great nations, nor the dawning of another day. 
Fully cognizant of their faults, I believe there is eternal and inevitable wisdom in that generation of men who, without surrendering their own integrity, trusted one another when it mattered.

I know not what the future will bring, but on the eve of New Year’s Eve 2020, I second Mr. Franklin’s motion.
Cognizant of my debts to Franklin, to Jefferson, to Adams and to more than I can count, I plead: 

Let us implore the assistance of Heaven, humbly seeking wisdom and help from the Father of Lights, asking for His blessing on this land and our peoples, living still in the midst of trouble and peril, in hope and in aspiration. 
Franklin, Jefferson and Adams still survive.

NOTE: This is adapted from a longer commentary first posted on CapitolBeatOK on July 2, 2013.