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Happy Birthday, U.S. Constitution

On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates lined up to put their names on the document they had agonized over for the last four sweltering months in the Pennsylvania State House to replace the fatally flawed Articles of Confederation. Through it all, James Madison sat near the front of the delegates’ meeting hall taking notes in his own shorthand of all the debates, discussions, and final compromises that made it into the document.

Three delegates refused to sign, holding out for a Bill of Rights. Others of the original 55 representatives from 12 states had drifted away or left in disgust. Rhode Island had refused to participate. Despite everything, with political divides as deep as any today, the remaining delegates signed and sent the new Constitution to Congress to pass on to State ratifying conventions. Nine states were required to ratify the document to put the new Constitution into effect. New Hampshire had the honor of being the ninth state. North Carolina held out until November of 1789, while Rhode Island capitulated in May of 1790.

Before we leave Independence Hall, visualize Benjamin Franklin in his eighties, overweight and crippled with a gout attack. He asks James Wilson to read his remarks, which are addressed directly to the handful of delegates who announced they would not sign the Constitution.

I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present…[H]aving lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged…to change opinions even on important subjects…[T]he older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others…I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would … doubt a little of his own infallibility…and put his name to this instrument.

Franklin speaks down the centuries to us all. Although the three reluctant delegates were not swayed that day, Franklin captured a key element of great leaders. They know they make bad decisions sometimes. They know they are fallible and question their preconceived notions.

As our midterm elections draw near, the attack ads continue relentlessly. Candidates play fast and loose with the facts. Heed Franklin's advice. Celebrate this Constitution and pay more respect to the judgment of others.

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(c) Rebecca Staton-Reinstein, president, Advantage Leadership, Inc.

To find out more about this important day in U.S. history, the strategic planning and leadership of the framers, and the wisdom of today's strategic leaders, read Conventional Wisdom: How Today's Leaders Plan, Perform, and Progress Like the Founding Fathers. Find out more at our website,

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