August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
At the first meeting of my first class in business school, our instructor divided the class into groups and gave each group a project. “Most of you are going to spend the rest of your lives trying to get things done in or through groups,” he told us, “so you might as well start now.”
A couple of miles from my classroom, and almost two hundred years earlier, a convention of fifty-five men had spent an arduous summer working on one of the most formidable group projects in history—the drafting of the Constitution of the United States.
There were many gifted men among those gathered in Philadelphia in 1787. Yet it is unlikely that any of them knew as much about getting things done in and through groups as an ailing, eighty-one-year-old retired businessman who attended the convention as a representative of Pennsylvania.
Aside from a speech that another delegate read for him on the last day of the convention—a speech justly celebrated as one of the finest ever made by any American—Benjamin Franklin did not play a large role in the convention. We may hear that speech a hundred times in 1987, yet we will not appreciate it fully unless we consider it in the light of Franklin’s earlier career as a businessman who devoted much of his leisure time to the promotion of public projects.
In 1727, Franklin tells us in the autobiography published after his death, he “form’d most of my ingenious Acquaintance into a Club for mutual Improvement, which we call’d the Junto.” Like Franklin, the other members of the club were tradesmen, sometimes called Leather Aprons, and the Junto was sometimes called the Leather-Apron Club.
The Junto was an early example of the activity today called “networking”—the diligent cultivation and exploitation of business connections. It served, Franklin’s biographer Carl Van Doren tells us, as Franklin’s “benevolent lobby for the benefit of Philadelphia, and now and then for the advantage of Benjamin Franklin.”
In 1731 Franklin completed what we might regard as his first major group project—the establishment of a public subscription library in Philadelphia. The young printer drafted a proposal and, “by the help of my Friends in the Junto, procur’d Fifty Subscribers.…”
For anyone interested in getting things done in groups, I can think of nothing that deserves more careful attention than the section of the autobiography in which Franklin discusses how he overcame the resistance he encountered when he tried to establish the subscription library. That resistance, he tells us, “made me soon feel the Impropriety of presenting one’s self as the Proposer of any useful Project that might be suppos’d to raise one’s Reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s Neighbours, when one has need of their Assistance to accomplish that Project. I therefore put my self as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a Scheme of a Number of Friends , who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought Lovers of Reading. In this way my Affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practis’d it on such Occasions.…”
An extraordinary number of such occasions followed. After the library (1731), Franklin founded or helped to found Philadelphia’s city watch (1735–52), Philadelphia’s first fire company (1736), Philadelphia’s first college (1749), Philadelphia’s first hospital (1751), and Philadelphia’s first fire insurance company (1752). He also founded the American Philosophical Society (1743), organized Pennsylvania’s first militia (1747), served as Grand Master of Pennsylvania’s Freemasons (1749), and played a key role in the paving and lighting of Philadelphia’s streets (1751–62).
In all these group activities, the masterful self-promoter adhered to a rule of strict self-effacement. “The present little Sacrifice of your Vanity,” he explains in the autobiography, “will afterwards be amply repaid. If it remains a while uncertain to whom the Merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encourag’d to claim it, and then even Envy will be dispos’d to do you Justice, by plucking those assum’d Feathers, and restoring them to their right Owner.”
The subtlety of Franklin’s psychological observations is one of our main sources of pleasure in the autobiography. Suppose you want to lead a group. Should you try to lead by setting a perfect example? Franklin warns that “a perfect Character might be attended with the Inconvenience of being envied and hated.” A wise man “should allow a few Faults in himself, to keep his Friends in Countenance.”
Suppose you want to turn an adversary into a friend. Should you do a favor for your foe, in the hope of earning his gratitude? No, Franklin says. Better to ask your foe to do a favor for you, and then express your gratitude in the strongest terms. “He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
As Franklin recommends self-effacement to the promoter of any project that requires the support of other people, so he recommends self-effacement in conversation. His rules for the Junto included a stipulation that the group’s weekly discussions were to be conducted in “the sincere Spirit of Enquiry after Truth, without Fondness for Dispute, or Desire of Victory”—a stipulation taken so seriously that eventually “all Expressions of Positiveness in Opinion, or of direct Contradiction, were … made contraband and prohibited under small pecuniary Penalties.”
How should you express yourself if you want to win support from others in a group? In his youth, Franklin admits, he was innocent enough to believe that strong opinions should be strongly expressed. Life taught him another lesson, and he “made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own. I even forbid myself … the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly &c. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend , or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something, that 1 thought an Error, I deny’d my self the Pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some Absurdity in his Proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain Cases or Circumstances his Opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appear’d , or seem’d to me some Difference.…”
With regard to humility in general, Franklin confesses that “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance .…” The appearance produced large benefits: “The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradiction; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and 1 more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes and join with me when I happen’d to be in the right.” Indeed, Franklin claims to have succeeded so well in overcoming his youthful habit of “abrupt Contradiction” that “perhaps for these Fifty Years past no one has ever heard a dogmatical Expression escape me,” and he credits his modesty of speech, after only his “Character of Integrity,” for the fact that he acquired early in life “so much Weight with my Fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old.…”
With that introduction, let us listen again to the last public speech of a strong-minded businessman who has spent much of his life getting things done through groups, and who now wishes to persuade a group of comparably strong-minded men to join him in setting aside their doubts about a document that does not completely satisfy anyone.
“I confess,” the sick old man wrote in the speech that James Wilson of Pennsylvania delivered on his behalf on September 17, 1787, “that there are several parts of this Constitution which 1 do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration to change opinions, even on important subjects, which 1 once thought right but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and to pay attention to the judgment of others.…
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such.… I doubt too whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?…
“Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die.…
“On the whole, Sir, I cannot 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 infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
In France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin had won a formidable reputation as a ladies’ man, but it seems unlikely that he wooed the women of French society any more sweetly than he wooed his recalcitrant colleagues at the Constitutional Convention.
In the business literature of our own time, much is written about the importance of “team play.” Franklin’s career as a team player began with the young tradesmen of the Junto and ended with the teams that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Most of us can learn something from him. I myself have been known to speak rashly in the face of opinions I considered idiotic, but more and more, as I grow older, I make an effort to “doubt a little” of my infallibility, and to remember Franklin’s warning: “these disputing, contradicting and confuting People are generally unfortunate in their Affairs. They get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”