Franklin was America's first Renaissance man—its best-known inventor, philosopher, writer and statesman before the United States officially cut the cord with the British Empire. He was also a man with an ability to get along with folks of all political persuasions (except for his own son, who sided with Britain during the war). That makes him, I think, an inspiring character in an age of bitter partisanship. And even though the guy was not particularly religious—many atheists (wrongly) claim him as one of his own—his spirit of compromise actually had some deeply spiritual underpinnings.
In 1987, four years after the Revolutionary War and as the United States struggled under its Articles of Confederation, an 81-year-old Franklin was asked to participate in a convention to "revise" those articles. As it turned out, the convention opted to scrap the thing altogether and craft a new form of government. But here's the thing: They were creating it from scratch. After all, they had just rebelled against a monarchic government (so in vogue at the time) and had no interest in creating a petty dictatorship. There was no country in the world from which they could model the sort of government they wanted, and there were some wildly different ideas on how it should look. Franklin, for instance, hated the idea of a sole President, preferring a cabinet for the new nation's executive branch. And the legislature? Forget two congressional houses. One will do much better.
Most of the delegates were equally opinionated, and in-house fighting grew quite heated. But as things threatened to spin out of control, Franklin made an interesting proposal: Why don't we pray about it? Writes Isaacson:
Franklin was never known to pray publicly himself, and he rarely attended church. Yet he thought it useful to remind his assembly of demigods that they were in the presence of a God far greater, and that history was watching as well. To succeed, they had to be awed by the magnitude of their task and be humbled, not assertive. Otherwise, he concluded, "we shall be divided by our little, partial, local interests, our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a by-word down to future ages."
Franklin didn't get his prayer: The convention didn't have the money to hire a chaplain. But the point was made. The convention, naturally, went on to craft the United States Constitution—a document that was a product of compromise and imbued with the understanding that none of us are perfect. The Constitution's divisions of power and its system of checks and balances tells us, more than 200 years later, that absolute power cannot be entrusted to one man, or even one body of man. We all need help. We all need guidance. And we work best when we understand there are other, higher authorities watching us.
I wonder, sometimes, if we could use more of an attitude of prayer—not just in politics, but in our daily lives. Prayer is great for a lot of those reasons, of course … but one of the biggest is how it puts us—emotionally, spiritually and often physically—in a posture of humility. It reminds us that we're not as great and cool as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be; that we're dependent beings that need help and guidance. It reinforces that it's not all about us: We're a small piece in a much bigger picture.
Franklin died three years after the convention, leaving behind one of the greatest epitaphs of all time. Though he opted to use something a bit similar for his tombstone, his original seems far more fitting for America's premiere 18th-century wit:
The body of
B. Franklin, Printer:
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents worn out,
and stripped of its lettering and guilding)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost:
For it will, (as he believed) appear once more,
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected
By the author.