OPINION: The Virtue Most Needed

Thursday January 4, 2024

Each winter as the Christmas rush settles down and the new year is just around the corner, many of us begin to think about New Year’s resolutions. My thoughts also turn toward the coming legislative session. January is a time of renewed optimism and new resolve, as I anticipate how I can work with other legislators to keep Idaho moving forward.

I suspect that same optimism and resolve ruled the hearts and minds of those who met in the summer of 1787 to frame our U.S. Constitution. Fearing that the fragile and nascent “Union” was in danger of breaking apart, they realized that their task was urgent and critical if the American experiment was to survive. Although they shared a common goal, which was to craft a system of government that would work for a new nation, each of them no doubt arrived in Philadelphia with his own “best idea” of how to reach it.

By the end of the Convention’s hundred days, the delegates were exhausted, and there was still significant disagreement among them about the specifics of the document they were being asked to approve. The oldest delegate present, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, wisely observed that this was understandable, given that the attendees brought with them “all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” In fact, he understood that it was something akin to a miracle (he used the term ‘astonishing’) to have finally produced a Constitution worthy of their consideration – a system of government that he described as “approaching so near to perfection as it does.”

In his closing speech to the Constitutional Convention, Franklin said, “…the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others.” Herein lies the genius of Dr. Franklin. In a word, it was his humility.

Idaho’s legislative sessions generally last roughly the same amount of time as those patriots spent in the sweltering summer heat of 1787. Like they did in Philadelphia, we arrive in Boise with our own “best ideas” for how to tackle the issues that lie ahead. We spend 75 or 80 days, or sometimes even 100, studying, discussing, listening, debating, and hammering out legislation that we think will work for Idaho and her people.

The process is not easy. Just as it was in Philadelphia, it’s sometimes rancorous, contentious, and downright messy. One way to make it less so would be to realize that none of us has the perfect answer to every question or every issue. In modern parlance, this might be called “thinking outside the box.” But in this context the “box” needs to be seen for what it is: our own carefully constructed and closely guarded treasure chest of ideas. If we could loosen our tenacious attachment to our own positions, we could more readily listen to proposals different from our own and admit that some of them may actually be better.

Franklin’s closing statement to the 1787 Convention included an appeal to each of his fellow delegates to “doubt a little of his own infallibility” and agree to sign the new Constitution of the United States, despite any lingering doubts or disagreements. In other words, Dr. Franklin and every one of the 39 original signers had to compromise before they could ever hope to launch this nation on its path to greatness.

The most effective legislators are those who, like Benjamin Franklin, appreciate the value of humility. They are men and women who can imagine a variety of options without letting go of their own core beliefs. They are the ones who are willing to listen to all opinions without denigrating the ideas of others, weigh all ideas despite any question or hesitation about their viability, and sift through all the possibilities until a workable solution can be agreed to. Most importantly, they are the ones who are not afraid to “doubt a little of their own infallibility” instead of stubbornly clinging to “their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.”

As we approach the 2024 legislative session, it is my sincere hope that all of us can more closely emulate Dr. Franklin by being willing to doubt our own infallibility. We will better serve our fellow Idahoans by doing so.