The founding of Franklin College coincided with the establishment of a new form of governmentThe eyes of the world were on Pennsylvania in 1787. On May 25 a gathering of delegates chosen to represent the states convened in Philadelphia for the start of the Constitutional Convention. Presided over by General George Washington, the convention launched an eventful summer for the fledgling nation.
Highlights of the convention included the delegates’ decision on June 19 to establish a new form of national government by creating three separate branches—executive, legislative and judicial—with checks and balances to ensure a dispersal of power.
The convention ended on Sept. 17 with 39 delegates approving and signing the final draft of the U.S. Constitution. On Dec. 7 Delaware was the first of nine states needed to ratify it. Two additional states, Pennsylvania on Dec. 12 and New Jersey on Dec. 18, also ratified the document to cap off a momentous year.
Where Were Ben and John?
Benjamin Franklin started 1787 by celebrating his 81st birthday on Jan. 17. Despite ailing health he attended the Constitutional Convention as the oldest delegate.
On the last day of the convention Franklin was too weak to deliver a speech in support of the Constitution. He enlisted fellow Pennsylvanian James Wilson to deliver the speech for him.
Franklin was “astonished” that the proposed system of government came “so near perfection as it does.” According to the notes of James Madison, Franklin’s speech culminated in these words: “I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name on this instrument.”
John Marshall, who turned 32 on Sept. 24, was also in a legislative frame of mind, as he was elected to another term to the Virginia House of Delegates.
Marshall, who was licensed to practice law in 1780 and maintained a practice in Richmond, was likewise a proponent of the Constitution. A year after the document was drafted, Marshall spoke to Virginia’s ratifying convention.
“This part of the plan [the new judicial system] before us is a great improvement on that system from which we are now departing,” he said. “Here are tribunals appointed for the decision of controversies which were before either not at all, or improperly, provided for. That many benefits will result from this to the members of the collective society, every one confesses.”
Whilst in Lancaster
The summer of 1787 held another significant event for Franklin. A mere 12 days after the start of the convention, a new college bearing his name was dedicated in Lancaster.
The mission of Franklin College was to educate the German youth of central Pennsylvania and help in the diffusion of “knowledge through every part of the State, in order to preserve our present republican system of government, as well as to promote these improvements in the arts and sciences which alone render nations respectable, great and happy,” according to the petition put before the General Assembly of Pennsylvania.
The assembly granted the College’s charter on March 10, and the dedication ceremony was held on June 6. The program, which was printed in English and German, was titled “Order of procession and public worship to be observed in the dedication of Franklin College, in the borough and county of Lancaster.”
The Rev. Henry Muhlenberg, who was appointed the College’s “principal,” delivered his remarks in German. He was followed by the Rev. Joseph Hutchins, the College’s professor of the English language and of the Belles Lettres, who made his remarks in English.
One observer of the ceremony, which Franklin was not able to attend, was the eminent physician Benjamin Rush. In a letter to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Richard Stockton, Rush wrote: “It was to me one of the highest entertainments I ever enjoyed in my life.”
Rush advocated the establishment of this new institution of higher learning: “The fears of some little minded men, that we shall have too many Colleges, & too many learned men, are as absurd as it would be to say that we shall have too plentiful harvests—too much religion—or too much happiness.”
The College opened a month later on July 10. The first student on the “list of scholars who have entered into the English School, Franklin College” was Samuel Bethel. He was one of 101 students, male and female, who began their studies at Franklin College in Lancaster in 1787.