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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Friday, May 11, 1787

May 11, 2020 - 4 minute read

Franklin in his house

This evening a small group of  men, including six Pennsylvania delegates to the Federal Convention, gathered in the dining room of Dr. Franklin’s house just a few short blocks from the Statehouse.  They came to hear Tench Coxe read a weighty tome on “The Principles on Which a Commercial System for the United States of America Should be Founded.”

At the age of 81, Benjamin Franklin is the only man in America whose affections of the people could rival those of George Washington.  He spent more than sixteen years representing Pennsylvania and other colonies as their agent in England, and later, ten years as the first United States minister to France.  His storied life as a printer, political leader, inventor, scientist, diplomat, author, and philosopher will someday fill volumes for generations of Americans yet unborn.  But for now, he is simply content being back home in Philadelphia. 

It was less than two years ago, on September 14, 1785 when Franklin stepped onto the Market Street wharf where he had first set foot in Philadelphia as a seventeen-year-old runaway from Boston many years before.  Although infirm and suffering from gout and bladder stones, Franklin found his last voyage home to Philadelphia to be the most cheerful of all his trips across the Atlantic.  He was finally retired and able devote himself to his scientific projects and incessant research.  In fact, on the second day at sea he began measuring the temperature of the ocean, taking notes on the color of the sea water, and observing other peculiarities in the currents we now know as the Gulf Stream. This phenomenon had fascinated Franklin on his first voyage to England when he was only eighteen years old.  Mariners knew how to navigate it, but Franklin was the first to chart it and study it scientifically.  

News of Franklin’s return to Philadelphia was circulating several days before Franklin himself arrived. He was met with the sounds of cannon and church bells while throngs of enthusiastic Philadelphians gathered to welcome home their favorite son.  Such an “affectionate welcome,” he exclaimed, “was beyond my expectations.”

Franklin had hardly settled in when leaders of both major political factions in Pennsylvania called on him.  Elections to the Pennsylvania Supreme Executive Council were to be held the following month and Franklin immediately found himself in the enviable position of being nominated by both parties. Easily winning the October election, several days later the Council and Assembly elected him as President of Pennsylvania. His official duties required minimal activity, amenable to his health and extracurricular activities, including real estate.

Currently, Franklin owns several lots and houses in Boston and Philadelphia and has nearly completed construction of three houses off Market Street near his home. (One project has been held up due to a dispute with his neighbors over boundary lines.) He is also enlarging his own home, partly to accommodate one of the largest private libraries in America, composed of more than 4,000 books. On the first floor he has already added a new dining room that easily seats twenty-four guests and is used for the regular meeting of the American Philosophical Society. Franklin and a small group of friends founded the Society in 1743. Earlier this year he founded a new group, the Society for Political Enquiries.

Asserting that “the arduous and complicated science of government” has too long “been left to the care of practical politicians or the speculations of individual theorists,” Franklin proposed that the new Society study political science as the American Philosophical Society studies the natural sciences. Franklin’s spacious dining room has hosted the group biweekly since it was initiated by Franklin on February 9. Its members have been considering freedom of the press, prison reform, various forms of taxation, and other similar issues.

Every member of the Philadelphia delegation to the convention and other civic leaders have joined and tonight will consider future commercial policies of the United States as proposed by Mr. Coxe.

Franklin adopted a much less alarmist position on Shay’s Rebellion than had Washington. Perhaps viewing events from the vantage point of advanced age tempers reactions to disturbances such as those that had occurred in Massachusetts. Franklin had downplayed it as merely a “disturbance” of “some disorderly people.” Nevertheless, as President of Pennsylvania, he cooperated in apprehending insurgents who had fled into Pennsylvania, but he shares Washington’s aspirations for a strong national government with the power to make laws, impose taxes and control military affairs. Indeed, these were elements of the Albany Plan of Union Franklin had proposed years earlier in 1754, long before relations between the colonies and Britain had been irrevocably interrupted.

Now, more than thirty years later, those ideas will be considered once again in what he and others hope to be a grander plan to bring thirteen independent states - not colonies -  together to form a nation. The outcome is not assured, and failure would bode ill for other countries already viewing the young nation with skepticism.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his successor as United States Minister to France, Franklin shared his apprehension, “If it does not do good it must do harm, as it will show that we have not wisdom enough among us to govern ourselves, and will strengthen the opinion of some political writers that popular governments cannot long support themselves.”

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