On June 2, 1787, Benjamin Franklin delivered a speech at the Philadelphia Convention opposing a provision in the proposed Constitution to pay the president a salary. The speech reveals some important aspects of human nature that we should keep in mind today.
Franklin submitted a change to the proposed Constitution stipulating that instead of paying a salary, the president’s “necessary expenses shall be defrayed,” but the chief executive “shall receive no salary, stipend, fee, or reward whatsoever for their services.”
According to Madison’s Notes on the Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Franklin made the motion for the change and asked to read a prepared statement because “being very sensible of the effect of age on his memory, he had been unwilling to trust to that for the observations which seemed to support his motion.” James Wilson offered to read the letter and Madison included the text in his notes in its entirety.
Franklin was concerned about paying the president a salary because of human nature. He wrote that the combination of two passions – power and the opportunity for financial gain – would create factions, divide the nation and even incite wars.
“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 honor, that shall be at the same time a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”
In Franklin’s mind, it was all about incentives and the type of people such a system would attract.
“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.”
Franklin went on to warn that if the door was opened with even a modest salary, people in power would constantly strive for more, writing that “reasons will never be wanting for proposed augmentations. And there will always be a party for giving more to the rulers, that the rulers may be able in return to give more to them.”
Franklin said the government would eventually become a mechanism to enrich those who hold power at the expense of the general population. When that happens, large numbers of people will grow to resent supporting this mechanism. Franklin warned about what would happen – warfare between the governing and the governed.
“Hence, as all history informs us, there has been in every state and kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing and 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.”
Because government has the power, it usually wins this war with “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 partisans, and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure.”
Franklin worried that the combination of power and money would eventually lead the U.S. back to monarchy.
“But this catastrophe I think may be long delayed, if in our proposed system we do not sow the seeds of contention, faction, and tumult, by making our posts of honor places of profit.”
Franklin’s motion did not carry the day. Under the Constitution, as ratified, “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.”
Currently, the presidential salary is set at $400,000 per year. While this is modest when compared to CEO salaries in the corporate world, it is still a substantial sum of money. Furthermore, people in government positions — including the presidency — seem to find ways to enrich themselves while in power far beyond their government checks. There is no doubt the presidency offers both a post of honor and at the same time a place of profit.
As a result, many of the things Franklin warned about have come to pass, particularly his prediction that the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits would thrust themselves into government.
We’ve also seen the development of factions and constant warfare between the governing and governed.
The lesson is that we can’t wish away human nature. We can’t trust people with power. As George Mason astutely said, “Those who have power in their hands will not give it up while they can retain it. On the contrary, we know they will always, when they can, rather increase it.”
When you combine this impulse with a system that rewards greed, you are asking for trouble.
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