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If you ask most lawyers to identify the “father” of the Constitution, they are likely to name James Madison. True Federalists will insist upon Alexander Hamilton. Law professors and other purveyors of esoterica might mention James Wilson or Gouvernour Morris. Very few, however, will bring up that benevolent, grandfatherly icon of the founding generation, Benjamin Franklin. This omission-and it is a glaring one-is probably attributable to Franklin’s many other remarkable accomplishments as a scientist, diplomat and publisher. But the fact that Franklin’s discoveries revolutionized humanity’s understanding of electricity, that he was primarily responsible for France’s crucial assistance during the American Revolution and that he was the most popular writer in colonial America, should not collectively obscure his fundamental contributions to American law. Those contributions, among many others, are amply showcased in Walter Isaacson’s latest volume, A Benjamin Franklin Reader (Simon & Shuster, October 2003). In the Reader, Isaacson sets out some of the source materials for the celebrated biography of Franklin that he published last summer. Although one might expect only scholars and serious history buffs to enjoy reading primary sources, the materials Isaacson has selected-all original writings by Franklin-are a sheer delight even for the casual reader. The selections span the entirety of Franklin’s adult life, from his Silence Dogood essays, published at the age of 16, to his final letter to Thomas Jefferson, written from his deathbed at the age of 84. They address subjects both serious-Franklin’s views on religion and slavery, for example-and frivolous, including his mischievous suggestion that the Royal Academy of Brussels should conduct a study of how to “render the natural discharges of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes.” The writings are generally short, typically two to four pages long, which makes for easy browsing. To provide context, Isaacson introduces each document with a brief passage excerpted from his earlier biography. Ahead of his time Franklin’s ideas on American constitutional law are well represented in the Reader. They include his Albany Plan of 1754, in which, more than 20 years before he signed the Declaration of Independence and more than 30 years before he signed the Constitution, Franklin proposed a general government under which the colonies in British North America would unite. Franklin envisioned a federal system, a presidential veto and proportional representation in a grand council. The colonial assemblies rejected the Albany Plan because, according to Franklin, “they all thought there was too much prerogative in it, and in England it was judged to have too much of the democratic.” Isaacson also sets out Franklin’s 1775 proposal for Articles of Confederation, which, again, called for a strong central government with some of the characteristics and powers of our modern federal state. One can only speculate as to its effect had Congress adopted Franklin’s version of the articles, instead of the relatively loose confederation it eventually approved in 1781. It is not unreasonable, however, to believe that the early creation of Franklin’s strong federal government would have enabled the fledgling United States to avoid many years of national disarray, and might even have brought the revolution to a quicker and less bloody conclusion. Finally, Isaacson includes several of Franklin’s speeches to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Then 81 years old and suffering mightily from kidney stones, Franklin was able to attend the convention only with great effort, sometimes with the assistance of several men who carried him to and from his nearby home in an enclosed sedan chair. Although we might expect someone brimming with so many ideas to be a partisan in the mold of Hamilton or Madison, Franklin’s speeches reveal the far different, and essential, role he played: Franklin was the great mediator. During the humid, hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, Franklin repeatedly called for civility, or, as he phrased it, “coolness and temper.” He urged the delegates to put aside regional rivalries and to work for the common good. When the convention reached seemingly insurmountable impasses, he suggested creative solutions. For example, when large and small states could not agree over whether congressional representation should be apportioned according to population or assigned equally to each state, Franklin mentioned the possibility of carving up the larger states and giving some of their territory to the smaller ones: “If . . . it should be found necessary to diminish Pennsylvania, I should not be averse to the giving a part of it to [New] Jersey, and another to Delaware.” He then went on to advocate a less radical system of equal representation and voluntary contribution; but by signaling his willingness to go even so far as to alter the boundaries of his beloved home state, Franklin set an example of flexibility and cooperation that eventually won the day. Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention emphasized the spirit of mutual respect and compromise he brought to the proceedings: “Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” The past 216 years have proven the wisdom of Franklin’s famous double negative, and the Reader reminds 21st century Americans of the collective debt we owe to our national grandfather. Stewart Harris teaches constitutional law at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va.

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