On June 2, 1787, PA delegate James Wilson read a paper written by the elder statesman of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, which made a case against paying the chief executive a salary. While Franklin thought the executive should be reimbursed for expenses incurred while serving, he did not believe a salary would bring out the best candidates. In fact, he was direct about the kind of people who would seek an office promising power and money.
And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government, and be your rulers. And these, too, will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation: for their vanquished competitors, of the same spirit, and from the same motives, will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.
Franklin’s prophecy seems remarkably accurate regarding the present occupant of the White House. Franklin is correct that some who oppose Trump now do so because of similar motives. However, Trump hasn’t needed much of their help to “distress” his administration and render himself “odious to the people.”
The president’s salary isn’t high enough now to compete with private sector work but in our day the payoff comes in other ways. Trump’s position has already benefited his family and charges of kleptocracy are not far fetched. Former presidents (e.g., Clinton) have used their influence and position to tally up millions in speeches. One crisis of the last election was that so many people didn’t want to vote for either candidate. I hope we have a better choice next time around.
June 2, 1787
Today, the delegates decided that the Executive should be elected by the legislature for one seven year term. Benjamin Franklin made an passionate appeal not to pay the Executive a salary but his motion was postponed.
Regarding expressed influences on the content of the Constitution, the Bible and Christianity again didn’t explicitly come to bat. However, some who are inclined to see interpret the founders as expressing Christianity in coded messages might see an influence in Franklin’s speech (a paper read by delegate James Wilson) opposing a salary for the chief executive (what became the office of the president).
Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places it is that renders the British Government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true sources of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the Nation, distracting its councils, hurrying sometimes into fruitless & mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.
Although Franklin didn’t cite I Timothy 6:10 – “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” – he did use a phrase from the verse. Overtly, however, he referenced the problems experienced in the British government rather than use a religious foundation.
Franklin invoked history and more specifically cited the Egyptian Pharoah
Hence as all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the Governing & Governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes or enslaving of the people. Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partizans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure. There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharoah, get first all the peoples money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever. It will be said, that we don’t propose to establish Kings. I know it. But there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.
I believe the mention of Pharaoh would have conjured up images of Old Testament stories of Jewish slavery and redemption. Here Franklin used biblical imagery as illustration rather than blueprint.
So where did Franklin go for his recommendations about proper policy?
The high Sheriff of a County in England is an honorable office, but it is not a profitable one. It is rather expensive and therefore not sought for. But yet, it is executed and well executed, and usually by some of the principal Gentlemen of the County. In France the office of Counsellor or Member of their Judiciary Parliaments is more honorable. It is therefore purchased at a high price: There are indeed fees on the law proceedings, which are divided among them, but these fees do not amount to more than three per Cent on the sum paid for the place. Therefore as legal interest is there at five per Ct. they in fact pay two per Ct. for being allowed to do the Judiciary business of the Nation, which is at the same time entirely exempt from the burden of paying them any salaries for their services. I do not however mean to recommend this as an eligible mode for our Judiciary department. I only bring the instance to shew that the pleasure of doing good & serving their Country and the respect such conduct entitles them to, are sufficient motives with some minds to give up a great portion of their time to the Public, without the mean inducement of pecuniary satisfaction.
Franklin looked to local offices in England and judges in France where service to country is sufficient to attract people of high quality.
Taking an example from his home state, Franklin then extolled the virtues of service as found in the Quaker tradition.
Another instance is that of a respectable Society who have made the experiment, and practiced it with success more than an hundred years. I mean the Quakers. It is an established rule with them, that they are not to go to law; but in their controversies they must apply to their monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. Committees of these sit with patience to hear the parties, and spend much time in composing their differences. In doing this they are supported by a sense of duty, and the respect paid to usefulness. It is honorable to be so employed, but it was never made profitable by salaries, fees, or perquisites. And indeed in all cases of public service the less the profit the greater the honor.
Franklin then paid George Washington a compliment by using him as an example of someone who served without salary.
Despite Franklin’s good reputation and use of biblical imagery, the motion was politely postponed without debate. Madison wrote:
The motion was seconded by Col. Hamilton with the view he said merely of bringing so respectable a proposition before the Committee, and which was besides enforced by arguments that had a certain degree of weight. No debate ensued, and the proposition was postponed for the consideration of the members. It was treated with great respect, but rather for the author of it, than from any apparent conviction of its expediency or practicability.
Other influences referred to in this session include “antient republics.” Lauding state governments, Dickinson said:
If antient republics have been found to flourish for a moment only & then vanish forever, it only proves that they were badly constituted; and that we ought to seek for every remedy for their diseases. One of these remedies he conceived to be the accidental lucky division of this country into distinct States; a division which some seemed desirous to abolish altogether.
On the question of how many people should hold the position of Executive, delegate Butler said:
He said his opinion on this point had been formed under the opportunity he had had of seeing the manner in which a plurality of military heads distracted Holland when threatened with invasion by the imperial troops. One man was for directing the force to the defence of this part, another to that part of the Country, just as he happened to be swayed by prejudice or interest.
Heterodox Ben Franklin was the first to hint at Christianity to illustrate a point he wished to make. While interesting as a matter of rhetoric, his warning about “love of money” and use of the Quakers as a positive example cannot be seen as a blueprint for governance from the Bible.
I have come to believe that some historical myths will never die.
In this Liberty Counsel edition, Mat Staver and Matt Barber reinforce their mutual misunderstanding of this story, making the delegates to the Constitutional Convention prayer warriors. As I have documented previously, Franklin proposed daily prayers but the Convention delegates did not vote favorably on his motion. In fact, daily prayers were not thought necessary by most of the delegates.
Staver and Barber began by celebrating a recent federal appeals court decision allowing a Texas school board to open in student-led prayer. Then at 3:43, a female speaker said:
You know America was founded on prayer and prayer has been a common practice since the very beginning and I guess yo know Mat it reinforces what we do at Liberty Counsel to stand for these rights and stand for that privilege of prayer.
Mat Staver: Prayer, like I said, predated the First Amendment. How did it begin in our country as it results in these kind of meetings? It began with Benjamin Franklin during the early Constitutional Conventions. During those Constitutional Conventions where they were debating after the revolution what to do, what kind of form of government are we going to have. We had one view, we had another view, different states had, you know, the Virginia proposal, or this proposal or that proposal and they had as many opinions yes as they did no, so it started to fall apart. At that point in time, Franklin stood up and he has this famous speech where he talks about, ‘unless God builds the house, we’re not going to be any better off than the builders at Babel and that God governs in the affairs of men and have we now forgotten our most powerful friend or do we think we no longer need him. And he implored everyone from that point on to every time they deliberate, to begin their deliberations with prayer. They did. They had a long prayer, not just a short little 60 second, two minute prayer, but a long prayer meeting that was a turning point that ultimately brought America’s founding together and ultimately the United States Constitution and later the Bill of Rights which is the First Amendment and that’s why the Supreme Court said prayer’s been with us since the very beginning, the foundation of who we are. It cannot be unconstitutional, it was people who started prayer who later drafted the First Amendment and then continued to pray.
Matt Barber then quoted Franklin’s speech at the Convention. He then asked Staver, “How long did they pray Mat?” Staver said, “It took up several hours. It wasn’t just a little prayer, bless this meal and walk away.” Barber then said what happened doesn’t fit the narrative of the left. What Really Happened?
In fact, what happened doesn’t fit Mat Staver’s narrative. Franklin did in fact make a motion asking for prayers before meetings, but his motion was never voted on. The Convention adjourned without any prayers. Only a few delegates wanted to vote in favor of Franklin’s motion. To address the facts, I am going to reproduce a portion of a prior post on this subject. In essence, Staver and Barber are calling James Madison a liar. Madison recorded what happened next.
Mr. SHERMAN seconded the motion. Mr. HAMILTON & several others expressed their apprehensions that however proper such a resolution might have been at the beginning of the convention, it might at this late day, 1.64 bring on it some disagreeable animadversions. & 2.65 lead the public to believe that the embarrassments and dissensions within the Convention, had suggested this measure. It was answered by Docr F. Mr. SHERMAN & others, that the past omission of a duty could not justify a further omission-that the rejection of such a proposition would expose the Convention to more unpleasant animadversions than the adoption of it: and that the alarm out of doors that might be excited for the state of things within, would at least be as likely to do good as ill. Mr. WILLIAMSON, observed that the true cause of the omission could not be mistaken. The Convention had no funds. Mr. RANDOLPH proposed in order to give a favorable aspect to ye measure, that a sermon be preached at the request of the convention on 66 4th of July, the anniversary of Independence; & thenceforward prayers be used 67 in yr Convention every morning. Dr. FRANKn. 2nd this motion. After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the 68matter by adjourn; the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the motion. [Note 15: 15 In the Franklin MS. the following note is added:–“The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.”] (emphasis added)
In short order, two motions hit the floor. Franklin moved for daily prayers with a second by Roger Sherman. Then Edmund Randolph suggested a sermon followed by prayers. Franklin seconded that motion. Neither motion was voted on and the Convention adjourned. In fact, Franklin later noted that “The Convention, except three or four persons, thought Prayers unnecessary.” While I am sure at least some of the founders took God seriously, this story isn’t a good one to offer as evidence. Staver and Barber also push the idea that the prayers turned the Convention toward compromise.
Well, first there were no prayer meetings so that is a problem for that narrative.
Second, the Convention didn’t come back after the July 4th recess all prayed up and ready to compromise. On July 10, George Washington wrote Alexander Hamilton (who left the convention after the recess) and said:
I thank you for your Communication of the 3d. When I refer you to the State of the Councils which prevailed at the period you left this City—and add, that they are now, if possible, in a worse train than ever; you will find but little ground on which the hope of a good establishment, can be formed. In a word, I almost dispair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of the Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.
The disputations continued even after Franklin’s motion. It was not until mid-July, with the threat of dissolution hanging over their heads, that the delegates reached a compromise. Even then, four delegates left the convention in protest (John Mercer, Caleb Strong, John Lansing, Luther Marton) and three delegates didn’t sign the Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights (George Mason, Edmund Randolph, Elbridge Gerry). In the end, only 39 of the 55 delegates signed the document. The more parsimonious explanation for the consensus is that those with strong disagreement left the Convention.
Prayers before government meetings is a tradition and may continue to survive court challenges. However, the Franklin prayer myth isn’t necessary to defend such prayers. Staver and Barber should correct the record with their listeners so that error isn’t multiplied.
The myth of a prayer meeting at the Constitutional Convention just refuses to die.
Earlier this week, the American Family Association’s Reason and Company show opined favorably on Melania Trump’s reading of the Lord’s Prayer. In the process, Abraham Hamilton III said starting at 40 seconds in that Franklin’s effort “led to a three day prayer meeting at the Constitutional Convention.” He added, “So we have a long history of recognizing the God of the Bible in our country.” Watch
No. Franklin made a motion to have daily prayers but the Convention never acted on it and daily prayers were not held. In fact, Franklin later recorded that only three or four delegates thought prayers were needed. Even if Franklin’s request had been acted on favorably, it doesn’t follow that the delegates all prayed to the God of the Bible. Among the delegates, there was significant disagreement about God and the Bible. Some hardly believed, some scoffed at the Bible’s miracles while accepting the moral teachings of Jesus and still others were more orthodox.
For a detailed account of the Franklin proposal and how it grew to be an oft-repeated myth, see this article by Louis Sirico on the website of the Association of Legal Writing Directors. The last paragraph of his article is a fitting end to this post:
With respect to Franklin’s proposal, advocates have invoked it both as a solvent for specific disputes and as support for a general accommodationist policy. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the incompleteness of the historical record led many to accept the false history that Franklin had rescued the Constitutional Convention from collapse. Since then, although some writers have clung to that story, legitimate historians have endorsed an accurate story that most respected advocates have accepted and used to fashion their arguments. True history, then, has prevailed over false history. But false history continues to linger. In any event, the Franklin proposal demonstrates how history can prove a powerful force in effective advocacy. Whether accurate or mystical, stories of the past will continue to shape the present and the future.
In the case of the AFA and many religious right organization who use David Barton’s history, “false history continues to linger.”
This brief primer by Thomas Kidd in how deism was understood during the founding era is well worth reading.
Kidd cuts through the fog often generated by Christian nationalists (e.g., David Barton) and the new atheists regarding the religious beliefs of the founders. A brief sample:
So what was deism? In spite of all its diversity, deism was a strain of rationalist religion – many of its advocates, like Jefferson, would have called themselves Christians – which focused on the ethical, rational requirements of true faith and criticized the authority of ministers and institutional churches. Many of them, especially in England and America, believed that there was a true core of Christianity that one could recover through attention to Jesus’s teachings alone. One important aspect of deism that we often miss is that its adherents could hardly imagine a world not organized on theistic moral categories, such as the inherent goodness of charity. Most deists really did consider themselves serious theists, and many considered themselves devotees of Jesus and his teachings. Their deism was not just a convenient cloak for atheism.
I have read more by Jefferson than the other founders and believe Kidd to be on target.