Benjamin Franklin's Rising Sun

Benjamin Franklin, at 81, was the oldest and the most widely accomplished delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. His presence represented the final public service in a remarkable career as scientist, author, diplomat and statesman. His reputation in Europe, wrote John Adams from Paris, was "more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them." Although he was physically feeble -- all of his speeches were read by a colleague -- Franklin attended most of the sessions and was troubled by the recurring signs of opposition to the draft Constitution. In a notable address toward the close of the Convention, he gently urged dissenting delegates to put aside their legitimate criticisms -- he himself had several -- and recognize the version before them as the best compromise possible.

On the final day, as the last delegates were signing the document, Franklin pointed toward the sun on the back of the Convention president's chair. Observing that painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising sun from a setting sun, he went on to say: "I have often ... in the course of the session ... looked at that sun behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun."

Franklin was one of several American leaders who saw the new Union as a model that other countries could usefully emulate. "I send you," he wrote to friends in Europe, "the proposed new federal Constitution for these states.... If it succeeds, I do not see why you might not in Europe form a Federal Union and one grand republic of all its different states and kingdoms...."