Greatness Speaks to Greatness, One Last Time

Franklin's Return to Philadelphia, 1785, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Source: Library of Congress
Franklin’s Return to Philadelphia, 1785, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Source: Library of Congress

As Benjamin Franklin lay on his deathbed in the spring of 1790, he wrote a farewell letter to George Washington. He congratulated the first president “on the growing strength of our new government under your administration.” Then he added a private goodbye.

    For my own personal ease, I should have died two years ago; but tho these years have been spent in excruciating pain, I am pleased to have lived through them, since they have brought me to see our present situation. I am now finishing my 84th year, and probably with it my career in this life; but in whatever state of existence I am plac’d hereafter, if I retain any memory of what has pass’d here, I shall with it retain the esteem, respect and affection with which I have long been, my dear friend, yours most sincerely.

                 Benjamin Franklin

No one knew better than Washington what Franklin had done to launch the new government at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Already so afflicted with bladder stone,  he could not walk or stand with comfort, he attended almost every day of the three month session, intervening again with shrewd compromises between quarrelsome large states and nitpicking small states and between those who wanted a president limited to rich men and those who wanted no president at all. In the closing days came his ultimate triumph, when it  became apparent that numerous men were reluctant to sign the finished document, because they did not agree with some parts of it.

Franklin persuaded his friend, the distinguished lawyer James Wilson, to read his final speech. He admitted that there were parts of the Constitution that “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 full consideration to change opinions.”  Whereupon Franklin urged everyone to “doubt a little of his own infallibility” and sign the charter as proof of their fundamental agreement. Their signatures would simply attest to “the unanimous consent of the states present.”

Washington and Franklin at the signing of the Constitution. Source. Painted by Howard Chandler Christy. Source: U.S. House of Representatives
Washington and Franklin at the signing of the Constitution. Painted by Howard Chandler Christy.
Source: U.S. House of Representatives

Those immensely clever words soothed egos in all directions, and the Constitution soon became the government we still cherish. Washington’s reply made it clear that he remembered vividly what Franklin had accomplished.  It should also refute for all time the notion that the father of the country was an emotionless figurehead.

    Would to God, my dear sir, that I could congratulate you on the removal of that excruciating pain, under which you suffer, and your existence might close with as much ease to yourself, as its continuance has been beneficial to our country and useful to mankind.; or, if the united wishes of a free people, joined with the earnest prayers of every friend to science and humanity, could relieve the body from pains and infirmities, that you can claim an exemption on this score. But this cannot be, and you have within yourself the only resource to which we can confidently apply for relief, a philosophic mind.

    If to be venerated for benevolence, if to be admired for talents. If to be esteemed for patriotism, if to be beloved for philanthropy, can gratify the human mind, you must have the pleasing consolation to know, that you have not lived in vain. And I flatter myself that it will not be ranked among the least grateful occurrences of your life to be assured that, so long as I retain my memory, you will be thought of with respect, veneration and affection by your  sincere friend,

                  George Washington

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