Mel Bradford’s outstanding tome A Better Guide Than Reason lifted that phrase from a speech John Dickinson made during the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Dickinson worried that the delegates to what we now call the “Constitutional Convention” were insistent on crafting a document that would reinvent the government of the United States, something James Madison proposed with his now famous “Virginia Plan.” Dickinson cautioned against this course of action. He thought any new constitution should not be the best document the delegates to the Convention could imagine, but should instead be the best document that the States would accept, meaning one that relied on the customary and familiar traditions of the American experience. These were the time tested maxims of government, society, and law.
This August 1787 speech, more than Alexander Hamilton’s troubling exposition in June 1787 on the potential beauty of a soft monarchy, set the tone for the rest of the Convention. Other members of the founding generation echoed Dickinson, both during the Convention and in the State ratification debates, but Dickinson said it best.
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