I teach a course on American history at our local college.
It’s an interesting subject, and one with a myriad of details. Of the more fascinating periods in American history is the revolutionary period, and the situations and histories of the founders.
A little bit of research will also uncover a very unique reliance upon God in the formation of the United States. They were keenly aware of the circumstances of their rebellion against Great Britain, and drew from a vast array of philosophies and ideal in creating something entirely new.
I wanted to introduce those themes to my course, and in my own lectures I drew extensively from the following article in this part of the course, and I will include, today, the first portion of it.
It’s a great read, for sure, and a great insight into the minds of the founders, and their reliance upon the hand of God in the forming of the first free society in the history of the world.
The article, published in The New American in 2002, is entitled The American Miracle, and is written by Dennis Behreandt. The portion below details the writing of the Constitution of the United States, and the unagreeable nature of the men who convened to write the document. Benjamin Franklin, the first American statesman, saw the disagreements, and had a unique proposal. Here it is, in the words of Behreandt …
Our War for Independence seemed destined for failure. But with the intercession of providence at key points, the American cause succeeded in spectacular fashion.
The creation of a new government hung in the balance. After almost five weeks of intense study and debate, of yeas and nays, of discord and acrimony, the convention was at a stand-still. Except for Rhode Island’s, all the states’ delegates, composed of the leading professionals and intellectuals
of the day, had met at the Philadelphia State House in May of 1787 in hopes of addressing the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, under which the young union of 13 former colonies operated. Despite these delegates’ intellectual brilliance, despite their patriotic diligence and goodwill, the convention had produced nothing but discord.
… By the end of June, the stalemate had solidified. On the 28th of that month, Benjamin Franklin, concerned that the convention would end in failure, prepared to address the delegates. Franklin was America’s elder statesman. At 81, he was the oldest delegate at the convention and, during his long life, had achieved a degree of fame and acclaim greater than any other American save Washington. His genius was wide ranging. A noted inventor, he famously studied electricity along with geology, agriculture, astronomy, and meteorology, among other subjects. He had distinguished himself as a printer and journalist and as a diplomat. Now, he addressed the assembled delegates.
Franklin’s words, like those of the other delegates, were carefully recorded by James Madison in his famous notes on the convention. “The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other–our different sentiments on almost every question … is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding,” Franklin sadly observed. “We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.”
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened,
Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.–Our prayers, Sir, were heard, & they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth–that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow can not fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel…. I therefore beg leave to move–that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.
Franklin’s motion was adopted that day, but the effect was gradual. A few days later, on July 10th, George Washington, who presided over the convention, still fretted over the outcome. In a letter to Alexander Hamilton he wrote, “I almost despair of seeing a favourable issue to the proceedings of our Convention, and do therefore repent having had any agency in the business.” But the convention continued and compromise began to follow compromise and at the close of four months the delegates closed the convention in triumph.
Madison records that upon concluding the proceedings Franklin turned “towards the President’s Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, [and] observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun.” Now, Franklin said, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
To Washington it seemed that God had positively influenced the proceedings. A few months after the convention’s close, he wrote to Marquis de Lafayette, “It appears to me … little short of a miracle, that the Delegates from so many different States should unite in forming a system of national government….”
Prayer was presented as the simple solution to such a complex problem. In the textbook I use for the course, Franklin’s plea is interpreted as a silly solution to serious squabbles. But the words of Washington are touching.
He perceived the authoring of one of the foremost pieces of government ever established as nothing short of a miracle.