The American Experiment Reclaiming Benjamin Franklin's Promised Republic
“The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.” John Adams
When the American Constitution was being signed at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin remarked that he had often wondered whether the rays of the sun painted in the chair of the president of the convention signified a sunrise or sunset for the new country. According to James Madison, Franklin expressed his satisfaction that “now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
The Constitutional Convention was an extraordinary experiment, an attempt to determine, as Alexander Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 1, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” This is the challenge that today confronts the newly emerging democracies.
If the American experiment may be regarded as successful, if it is a model to be emulated, the reason must be found in the causes of the American Revolution. “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams observed. “The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments, their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”
Of all these changes, perhaps the most important was what historian Daniel Boorstin has called “the courage to doubt,” which was exemplified by Benjamin Franklin. Near death, Franklin was asked his opinion about a religious question. He expressed an opinion, but added that “it is a question that I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.” Franklin was not troubled by living in a state of uncertainty regarding a question for which he had no good evidence one way or the other. Since a decision was not required, he was content to wait until better evidence became available.
The United States was built on this foundation of healthy doubt, which is expressed in American institutions. Indeed, the peaceful transfer of power depends on it. In a democracy, the minority cedes power to the majority on the assumption that the majority has a better claim to be in the right. The minority does not conclude that it must be wrong; rather, it acknowledges, in effect, that it might be wrong. Just as important, the majority makes the same assumption, for otherwise it would not allow itself to be turned out of power merely for losing an election.