Ben Franklin, Opinions, and Maturing

On September 17, 1787, the United States Constitution had just been read to the assembled delegates of the Constitutional Convention for their review and approval. Prior to the Constitution having been written, the United States was governed by a set of Articles of Confederation, which, in many opinions, was problematic in the management of our new nation. The Articles of Confederation left much more power in the hands of the states than our current form of government.

Many at the time felt, after having just thrown off the yoke of an oppressive, distant government, that having government closer to the people was far superior. Others felt that there was a need for a centralized government especially in matters of international importance that could represent all of the states with one voice. To this end, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington were the leading advocates for the centralization of government and the construction of the Constitution of the United States.

Several others of our founding fathers such as Patrick Henry were very much opposed to the new Constitution because of their fear of a large, powerful, centralized government and the potential hazards they could foresee. Patrick Henry eventually came to support the Constitution after the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. One of the most poignant statements made at the close of the Constitutional Convention has wisdom for us all, can help us all in these turbulent times in the fire service, and reflects for many of us a wisdom that comes only from experience and humility.

Benjamin Franklin, who was present on that day, was in poor health and advanced years; that being so, he did not feel up to addressing the audience but instead wrote an eloquent note that was read by his friend Mr. Wilson. Here is the opening paragraph of that note.

Mr. President,

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged 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. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion think themselves in possession of all truth, and that where ever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant in a Dedication, tells the Pope that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who in a 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.”

For the past 10 years (120 months), I have had the privilege of sharing my simple personal opinions on this page. You have allowed me to share with you my thoughts on important matters of the day; our timeless principles; and other matters that from time to time have required us to think, reflect, and on occasion take a position. There have been issues social and tactical, political and personal that we have shared on this page. There have been many changes over the past 10 years in our fire service, as the good doctor said in his note, there are parts of which I do not at present approve. But as the doctor also said, I am not sure I will never approve them.

Like Ben Franklin, as time has gone on, I, too, have experienced many instances of being obliged because I learned better information or I thought deeper on an issue to change my opinion on important subjects of which I was thoroughly convinced I was right at the time. This is completely normal and should come as no surprise to anyone, for we have all gone through this evolution in our lifetimes. If you have not, you are a very interesting individual, much like the French woman the good doctor mentioned in his note. But most of us on deeper reflection or after uncovering new information or evidence have changed our opinions on sometimes deeply held convictions or thoughts.

It is also comforting that, according to the good doctor, the older we grow the more able we are to question our positions, to be willing to doubt our own judgment and to be capable of paying more respect to the judgment of others. I hope I evolve in such a meaningful way, for to believe yourself to be infallible would probably be the greatest deficit of all. Far better it be to question your own conviction if even ever so slightly, to push yourself to probe deeper and consider the issue more thoroughly from time to time.

It has been and continues to be the greatest honor of my life to be allowed to share with you if ever so briefly on these pages a thought, a consideration, a whim, or an opinion that, with the passage of time or in light of new information, could change.

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