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Franklin had been among the first to develop, 30 years earlier, the concept of a federal compromise, where both the national government and the state governments could have sovereign powers. And as the Constitutional Convention was about to break down in the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, he set in motion the process that would break the impasse and, to a large extent, shape the new nation.
First Franklin succinctly stated the problem: "The diversity of opinions turns on two points. If a proportional representation takes place, the small States contend that their liberties will be in danger. If an equality of votes is to be put in its place, the large States say their money will be in danger."
Then he gently emphasized, in a homespun analogy that drew on his affection for craftsmen and construction, the importance of compromise: "When a broad table is to be made, and the edges of planks do not fit, the artist takes a little from both, and makes a good joint. In like manner here, both sides must part with some of their demands."
Finally, he incorporated some compromises suggested by others into a specific motion. Representatives to the lower House would be popularly elected and apportioned by population, but in the Senate "the Legislatures of the several States shall choose and send an equal number of Delegates."
For Franklin, who personally believed in proportional representation, compromise was not only a practical approach but a moral one. Tolerance, humility and a respect for others required it. The near perfect document that arose from his compromise could not have been approved if the hall had contained only crusaders who stood on unwavering principle. Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.
The great struggles of the 20th century were against fascism and then communism. As was made clear on Sept. 11, the great struggle of the 21st century will be between the forces of fanatic fundamentalism and those of tolerance. It is important to remember that America was not born with the virtue of religious tolerance, but had to acquire it. One of the myths is that the first settlers were advocates of religious freedom. In fact, the Puritans were very intolerant, not only of witches but also of any deviation from the tribal orthodoxy. The most arcane antinomian dispute ended up forcing people to move and found a new state like Rhode Island.
Among those who ran away from the intolerant orthodoxy of Boston was Franklin. He ended up in Philadelphia, a place unlike much of the world. There were Lutherans and Moravians and Quakers and even Jews, as well as Calvinists, living side by side in what became known as the City of Brotherly Love. Franklin helped formulate the creed that they would all be better off, personally and economically, if they embraced an attitude of tolerance.
Franklin believed in God and in the social usefulness of religion, but he did not subscribe to any particular sectarian doctrine. This led him to help raise money to build a new hall in Philadelphia that was, as he put it, "expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something." He added, "Even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service."