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America: Imperfect, by Design

American democracy is imperfect. That’s on purpose.

December 2023

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Philadelphia, 1787.

55 representatives have come from throughout the young nation to establish a new form of government.i They’re about to put the final touches on what we’ll come to know as the Constitution of the United States.

What are they thinking as they stand on the precipice of this defining historical moment?

Are they thinking that they’ll set an example of freedom for people around the world?

Are they thinking that they’re witnessing the birth of a nation that will someday be the most powerful on the globe?

Actually, at least one of them — a very famous one of them — is thinking, “It’s possible that our whole plan here kinda sucks.”

Ben Franklin, ladies and gentlemen.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

Here at Kite & Key, we make no secret about our affection for Benjamin Franklin.

Named the company in his honor.

Made a whole video about him.

Forced every member of the staff to get this haircut:

Yeah, there were lawsuits.

Now, don’t get us wrong. We’re not saying Benjamin Franklin was perfect or even particularly close. After all, this is the guy who wanted to remove the letter C from the alphabet.ii

And the letter J.

And the letters Q, W, X, and Y.

Yeah, we don’t get it either.

But here’s the thing: One of Benjamin Franklin’s best traits was that he knew he wasn’t perfect. Here’s what we mean:

When America’s Founders gathered in Independence Hall to write the Constitution, Franklin was 81 years old.iii And while today that would make him the youngest member of the U.S. Senate, back then it meant that he was the senior statesman at the Constitutional Convention, the person whose opinion commanded the most respect in that room.

And that’s why it’s notable that the very first thing Benjamin Franklin said when it came time to vote on the Constitution … was that he didn’t “entirely approve” of it.iv But here’s what’s interesting: Franklin didn’t bring up his objections to explain why he was voting against the Constitution; he brought them up to explain why he was voting for it. Because the second thing he said was … that his opinion might be wrong.

One of the lessons age and experience had taught him, he told the delegates, was that just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that it can’t be good. So, despite his concerns, Franklin announced that he was supporting the Constitution “because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."v

Now, that may not be the world’s most ringing endorsement — it’s basically three stars on Yelp — but here’s the thing: Those kinds of modest expectations … are probably one of the reasons that America’s Constitution has endured longer than any other on the planet.vi Our system works because, like Ben Franklin, it assumes imperfection.

Think about it: Why does America have a system of checks and balances in which Congress, the president, and the courts can all counteract each other’s powers? Because we know that presidents, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices aren’t infallible — and somebody has to be able to hold each of them to account.

Why do we have a bill of rights? Because the Founding Fathers worried that, without one, politicians couldn’t necessarily be trusted to protect our most basic freedoms.vii

In fact, America’s entire system of government is designed on the assumption that we’ll have to live with imperfect leadership. That’s why James Madison — in many ways the intellectual architect of the Constitution — noted in his defense of the document that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm”viii — which is a very elegant, 18th century way of saying “We’re gonna elect our fair share of morons.”

And let’s be honest: Regardless of your political views, you probably think we’ve elected our fair share of morons. And yet … we’re still standing. By denying any of them too much power, we make sure that the system endures, and the country always comes out relatively unscathed on the other side.

That we got a system of government this resilient defied the odds, for another reason that Ben Franklin pointed out in Philadelphia. As he noted, delegates to the Constitutional Convention came from all over the country, bringing a wide variety of beliefs, preferences, and regional biases.ix It was impossible to build a system that each one of them could endorse without reservations … and yet they all made the concessions necessary to make it work.

And, if anything, this is something that Americans should be even more proud of today. After all, in Franklin’s era, “diversity” was when a white guy from Massachusetts met up with a white guy from Connecticut.

Today, America spans an entire continent and is full of people from every race, religion, nationality, and walk of life. And yet, for all our differences, we still manage to make it work. It’s pretty remarkable: one nation that can feel just as much like home for the bankers on Wall Street as for the musicians on Bourbon Street; for the surfers in California as for the people doing whatever it is they do in Delaware.

And the only reason this all works … is because we embraced imperfection. Rather than trying to come up with one system that was ideal for everybody, we created a system of government that gives each of those 50 states the ability to make their own laws and cater to the needs of their own citizens. It can be messy at times, but it’s also turned out to be intensely practical.

I mean, you try telling Texas what to do.

Has America fallen short of perfection? Of course. And it always will. But we’ve still done pretty well for ourselves … and it’s probably because Ben Franklin was onto something.

Maybe the best country to live in is one that takes into account that we all fall short sometimes; that recognizes that we have to make compromises to unite over 330 million people into a single nation. Maybe the best country to live in is one that’s imperfect by design.

After all, it’s served us well for nearly 250 years. And if we keep going, who knows … maybe 3 1/2 stars on Yelp someday.

Source(s)

  1. America’s Founding Documents: Meet the Framers of the Constitution — National Archives
  2. “Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet” (Jimmy Stamp) — Smithsonian Magazine
  3. America’s Founding Documents: Meet the Framers of the Constitution — National Archives
  4. “Closing Speech at the Constitutional Convention (1787)” (Benjamin Franklin) — National Constitution Center
  5. Ibid.
  6. Constitution FAQs — National Constitution Center
  7. The Bill of Rights: A Brief History — American Civil Liberties Union
  8. The Federalist Papers, No. 10 (James Madison)
  9. “Closing Speech at the Constitutional Convention (1787)” (Benjamin Franklin) — National Constitution Center

Shownotes

Sound | Premium Beat: "Seizing the Moment" Evan MacDonald, "Floodgates" Marc Walloch, "Euphoric Reverie" Elizaballs, "Through the Galaxy" Tatami // Musicbed: "Take Your Shot" Casual Fashion, "Come and Get It" Marcus Meston // Splice SFX Library // Premium Sound Cloud SFX Library

Footage | Associated Press: Joe Rosenthal // Architect of the Capitol: John Trumbull, Howard Chandler Christy // Philadelphia Museum of Art: Benjamin West // The White House Historical Society: David Martin // The White House: Gilbert Stuart // National Portrait Gallery: Thomas Sully, Gilbert Stuart // National Archives and Records Administration // Metropolitan Museum of Art: Joseph Siffried Duplessis Pierre Michel Alix, John Trumbull, Marguerite Gérard, Anne Rosalie Bocquet Filleul // Library of Congress: Thomas Sully // Harvard University Portrait Collection: John Singleton Copley // Getty: Leezsnow, Vasiliki, Tekandshoot, Richard T. Nowitz, Richard Ross, Daniel Sambraus, Patstock, Heritage Images, Joecicak, Stock Montage, Hulton Archive / Stringer, Fotosearch / Stringer, Apic / Contributor, Blackred, Ianmcdonnell, Bettmann, MPI, Dmytro Omelianenko, Discovery Access, Sciepro, Timnewman, TonyBaggett, Mscornelius, Kyle Sparks, Erika Goldring / Contributor, Michael M. Santiago / Staff, RoosterHD, Chandan Khanna / Contributor, Catherine Ledner, Fat Camera, Hill Street Studios, Ken Redding, Ariel Skelley, Daniel Milchev, Katrina Wittkamp, Thomas Barwick, Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Contributor, Bruce Bennett / Staff, Gary Coronado / Contributor, Roger Wright, Mark Edward Atkinson/Tracey Lee, Andy Sacks, Cavan Images, Per Breiehagen, Richard Hamilton Smith, VioletaStoimenova, Rick T. Wilking / Stringer, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Portland Press Herald / Contributor, Alex Wong / Staff // Pexels: Cottonbro Studio, Krisztian Kormos, Andrea Piacquadio, Roberto Nickson, Pixabay, Mike Knibbs, Edwin Jambo Micha, Nick Wehrli, Imustbedead, Mike Glezos, Zeynep Seçer, Monica Silvestre, On Shot, RDNE Stock project, Raychell Sanner, Budgeron Bach, Joseph Eulo, Vanessa Loring, Richard Thrift, Distill // Unsplash: Julien Maculan, Maddison McMurrin, Christian Alvarez, Annie Spratt, Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash+, Devin Pickell, Felix Mittermeier, AARN GIRI, Hermes Rivera, Grigore Ricky, Ben Weber, Benjamin R., Andy Feliciotti, Engin Akyurt, Sini Tiainen, Screenroad, Likuan Wang, Andy Kelly, Philipp Knape, Mihály Köles, Documerica, Hans Isaacson, Taylor Friehl, Manu Talavera, Chris Henry, Frank McKenna, LaShawn Dobbs, Andrew James, Nicolai Berntsen, Dan Gold, Ashton Clark, Megan Leong, Tim Mossholder, Chris Tagupa // Vecteezy: Roni Nurdiansyah, Ovidiu Timplaru // Otherspice // Samuele Wikipediano 1348 // ActionVFX // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

Sources

  1. National Archives
    America’s Founding Documents: Meet the Framers of the Constitution
  2. Smithsonian Magazine
    “Benjamin Franklin’s Phonetic Alphabet” (Jimmy Stamp)
  3. National Constitution Center
    “Closing Speech at the Constitutional Convention (1787)” (Benjamin Franklin)
  4. National Constitution Center
    Constitution FAQs 
  5. American Civil Liberties Union
    The Bill of Rights: A Brief History
  6. The Federalist Papers, No. 1
    By James Madison

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