Benjamin Franklin's Prophecy about Those Who Seek To Be President

Journal Federal Cons LogoOn June 2, 1787, PA delegate James Wilson read a paper written by the elder statesman of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin, which made a case against paying the chief executive a salary. While Franklin thought the executive should be reimbursed for expenses incurred while serving, he did not believe a salary would bring out the best candidates. In fact, he was direct about the kind of people who would seek an office promising power and money.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable pre-eminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government, and be your rulers. And these, too, will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation: for their vanquished competitors, of the same spirit, and from the same motives, will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.

Franklin’s prophecy seems remarkably accurate regarding the present occupant of the White House. Franklin is correct that some who oppose Trump now do so because of similar motives. However, Trump hasn’t needed much of their help to “distress” his administration and render himself “odious to the people.”
The president’s salary isn’t high enough now to compete with private sector work but in our day the payoff comes in other ways. Trump’s position has already benefited his family and charges of kleptocracy are not far fetched. Former presidents (e.g., Clinton) have used their influence and position to tally up millions in speeches. One crisis of the last election was that so many people didn’t want to vote for either candidate. I hope we have a better choice next time around.

In Constitutional Convention – Could a Monarch Arise in the United States?

June 4, 1787
During this session, the delegates engaged in debate over the executive branch and agreed on a single executive with veto power over legislation. They decided that vetoes should be subject to a 2/3 vote by each branch to override. The delegates also agreed to a national judiciary.
The experience of the states was cited by at least two delegates in favor of a single executive magistrate. Roger Sherman agreed with the single magistrate but called for a council of advisors for the single executive using the states and Great Britain as illustrations.

Mr. Sherman. This matter is of great importance and ought to be well considered before it is determined. Mr. Wilson he said had observed that in each State a single magistrate was placed at the head of the Govt. It was so he admitted, and properly so, and he wished the same policy to prevail in the federal Govt. But then it should be also remarked that in a all the States there was a Council of advice, without which the first magistrate could not act. A Council he thought necessary to make the establishment acceptable to the people. Even in G. B. the King has a council; and though he appoints it himself, its advice has its weight with him, and attracts the Confidence of the people.
It was mentioned (by Col: Hamilton) that the King of G. B. had not exerted his negative since the Revolution.

The delegates mentioned Britain three more times as a part of the debate. Rather than appeal to any biblical principle, the delegates seemed more concerned about avoiding the problems experienced in Britain. For another example, delegate Butler said:

Mr. Butler had been in favor of a single Executive Magistrate; but could he have entertained an idea that a compleat negative on the laws was to be given him he certainly should have acted very differently. It had been observed that in all countries the Executive power is in a constant course of increase. This was certainly the case in G. B. Gentlemen seemed to think that we had nothing to apprehend from an abuse of the Executive power. But why might not a Cataline or a Cromwell arise in this Country as well as in others.

Mason had significant worries about the government being an elective monarchy:

Col. Mason observed that a vote had already passed he found (he was out at the time) for vesting the executive powers in a single person. Among these powers was that of appointing to offices in certain cases. The probable abuses of a negative had been well explained by Dr. F as proved by experience, the best of all tests. Will not the same door be opened here. The Executive may refuse its assent to necessary measures till new appointments shall be referred to him; and having by degrees engrossed all these into his own hands, the American Executive, like the British, will by bribery & influence, save himself the trouble & odium of exerting his negative afterwards. We are Mr. Chairman going very far in this business. We are not indeed constituting a British Government, but a more dangerous monarchy, an elective one. We are introducing a new principle into our system, and not necessary as in the British Govt. where the Executive has greater rights to defend. Do gentlemen mean to pave the way to hereditary Monarchy? Do they flatter themselves that the people will ever consent to such an innovation? If they do I venture to tell them, they are mistaken. The people never will consent.

Franklin appealed to the experience of the Netherlands in order to advocate against an executive with too much power.
According to delegate Pierce, James Madison made a speech which appealed to the ancient republics (Madison included some of this in his June 6 entry):

Mr. Maddison in a very able and ingenious Speech, ran through the whole Scheme of the Government, — pointed out all the beauties and defects of ancient Republics; compared their situation with ours wherever it appeared to bear any anology, and proved that the only way to make a Government answer all the end of its institution was to collect the wisdom of its several parts in aid of each other whenever it was necessary. Hence the propriety of incorporating the Judicial with the Executive in the revision of the Laws. He was of opinion that by joining the Judges with the Supreme Executive Magistrate would be strictly proper, and would by no means interfere with that indepence so much to be approved and distinguished in the several departments.

Mason again referred to historical republics without mentioning the Hebrews.

Yet perhaps a little reflection may incline us to doubt whether these advantages are not greater in theory than in practice, or lead us to enquire whether there is not some pervading principle in republican government which sets at naught and tramples upon this boasted superiority, as hath been experienced to their cost, by most monarchies which have been imprudent enough to invade or attack their republican neighbors. This invincible principle is to be found in the love, the affection, the attachment of the citizens to their laws, to their freedom, and to their country. Every husbandman will be quickly converted into a soldier when he knows and feels that he is to fight not in defence of the rights of a particular family, or a prince, but for his own. This is the true construction of the pro aris et focis which has, in all ages, performed such wonders. It was this which in ancient times enabled the little cluster of Grecian republics to resist, and almost constantly to defeat, the Persian monarch. It was this which supported the States of Holland against a body of veteran troops through a thirty years’ war with Spain, then the greatest monarchy in Europe, and finally rendered them victorious. It is this which preserves the freedom and independence of the Swiss Cantons in the midst of the most powerful nations. And who that reflects seriously upon the situation of America, in the beginning of the late war — without arms — without soldiers — without trade, money or credit, in a manner destitute of all resources, [113] but must ascribe our success to this pervading, all-powerful principle?

See also Ferrand’s record of this day.

June 2, 1787 in Constitutional Convention – Should the Executive Be Paid?

Journal Federal Cons LogoJune 2, 1787
Today, the delegates decided that the Executive should be elected by the legislature for one seven year term. Benjamin Franklin made an passionate appeal not to pay the Executive a salary but his motion was postponed.
Regarding expressed influences on the content of the Constitution, the Bible and Christianity again didn’t explicitly come to bat. However, some who are inclined to see interpret the founders as expressing Christianity in coded messages might see an influence in Franklin’s speech (a paper read by delegate James Wilson) opposing a salary for the chief executive (what became the office of the president).

Sir, there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power, and the love of money. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it. The vast number of such places it is that renders the British Government so tempestuous. The struggles for them are the true sources of all those factions which are perpetually dividing the Nation, distracting its councils, hurrying sometimes into fruitless & mischievous wars, and often compelling a submission to dishonorable terms of peace.

Although Franklin didn’t cite I Timothy 6:10 – “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” – he did use a phrase from the verse. Overtly, however, he referenced the problems experienced in the British government rather than use a religious foundation.
Franklin invoked history and more specifically cited the Egyptian Pharoah

Hence as all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the Governing & Governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes or enslaving of the people. Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partizans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure. There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharoah, get first all the peoples money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever. It will be said, that we don’t propose to establish Kings. I know it. But there is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government.

I believe the mention of Pharaoh would have conjured up images of Old Testament stories of Jewish slavery and redemption. Here Franklin used biblical imagery as illustration rather than blueprint.
So where did Franklin go for his recommendations about proper policy?

The high Sheriff of a County in England is an honorable office, but it is not a profitable one. It is rather expensive and therefore not sought for. But yet, it is executed and well executed, and usually by some of the principal Gentlemen of the County. In France the office of Counsellor or Member of their Judiciary Parliaments is more honorable. It is therefore purchased at a high price: There are indeed fees on the law proceedings, which are divided among them, but these fees do not amount to more than three per Cent on the sum paid for the place. Therefore as legal interest is there at five per Ct. they in fact pay two per Ct. for being allowed to do the Judiciary business of the Nation, which is at the same time entirely exempt from the burden of paying them any salaries for their services. I do not however mean to recommend this as an eligible mode for our Judiciary department. I only bring the instance to shew that the pleasure of doing good & serving their Country and the respect such conduct entitles them to, are sufficient motives with some minds to give up a great portion of their time to the Public, without the mean inducement of pecuniary satisfaction.

Franklin looked to local offices in England and judges in France where service to country is sufficient to attract people of high quality.
Taking an example from his home state, Franklin then extolled the virtues of service as found in the Quaker tradition.

Another instance is that of a respectable Society who have made the experiment, and practiced it with success more than an hundred years. I mean the Quakers. It is an established rule with them, that they are not to go to law; but in their controversies they must apply to their monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. Committees of these sit with patience to hear the parties, and spend much time in composing their differences. In doing this they are supported by a sense of duty, and the respect paid to usefulness. It is honorable to be so employed, but it was never made profitable by salaries, fees, or perquisites. And indeed in all cases of public service the less the profit the greater the honor.

Franklin then paid George Washington a compliment by using him as an example of someone who served without salary.
Despite Franklin’s good reputation and use of biblical imagery, the motion was politely postponed without debate. Madison wrote:

The motion was seconded by Col. Hamilton with the view he said merely of bringing so respectable a proposition before the Committee, and which was besides enforced by arguments that had a certain degree of weight. No debate ensued, and the proposition was postponed for the consideration of the members. It was treated with great respect, but rather for the author of it, than from any apparent conviction of its expediency or practicability.

Other influences referred to in this session include “antient republics.” Lauding state governments, Dickinson said:

If antient republics have been found to flourish for a moment only & then vanish forever, it only proves that they were badly constituted; and that we ought to seek for every remedy for their diseases. One of these remedies he conceived to be the accidental lucky division of this country into distinct States; a division which some seemed desirous to abolish altogether.

On the question of how many people should hold the position of Executive, delegate Butler said:

He said his opinion on this point had been formed under the opportunity he had had of seeing the manner in which a plurality of military heads distracted Holland when threatened with invasion by the imperial troops. One man was for directing the force to the defence of this part, another to that part of the Country, just as he happened to be swayed by prejudice or interest.

Heterodox Ben Franklin was the first to hint at Christianity to illustrate a point he wished to make. While interesting as a matter of rhetoric, his warning about “love of money” and use of the Quakers as a positive example cannot be seen as a blueprint for governance from the Bible.

June 1, 1787 in Constitutional Convention – Debating the Executive Branch

June 1, 1787
The delegates discussed the role of the Executive branch of the new government. The delegates decided on a seven year term but did not decide how the person(s) should be chosen. Some wanted the Executive appointed by the legislature and others wanted a popular vote to decide.
As the day before, delegates used the British experience as a caution against making their mistakes:

Mr. WILSON preferred a single magistrate, as giving most energy, dispatch, and responsibility, to the office. He did not consider the prerogatives of the British monarch as a proper guide in defining the executive powers. Some of these prerogatives were of a legislative nature; among others, that of war and peace, &c. The only powers he considered strictly executive were those of executing the laws, and appointing officers, not appertaining to, and appointed by, the legislature.


Mr. RANDOLPH strenuously opposed an unity in the executive magistracy. He regarded it as the fœtus of monarchy. We had, he said, no motive to be governed by the British government as our prototype. He did not mean, however, to throw censure on that excellent fabric. If we were in a situation to copy it, he did not know that he should be opposed to it; but the fixed genius of the people of America required a different form of government. He could not see why the great requisites for the executive department, vigor, despatch, and responsibility, could not be found in three men, as well as in one man. The executive ought to be independent. It ought, therefore, in order to support its independence, to consist of more than one.
Mr. WILSON said, that unity in the Executive, instead of being the fœtus of monarchy, would be the best safeguard against tyranny. He repeated, that he was not governed by the British model, which was inapplicable to the situation of this country; the extent of which was so great, and the manners so republican, that nothing but a great confederated republic would do for it.

Wilson favored an election by the people as was the case for choosing a governor in New York and Massachusetts. In Ferrand’s compilation, Pierce quotes Wilson using Athens and Rome as negative examples.

Mr. Wilson said that in his opinion so far from a unity of the Executive tending to progress towards a monarchy it would be the circumstance to prevent it. A plurality in the Executive of Government would probably produce a tyranny as bad as the thirty Tyrants of Athens, or as the Decemvirs of Rome.

What did not come up was Moses or Exodus 18.