Consult the chair for your answer.

May 24, 1787. Pretend you are there.

The air is supercharged with the weight of history and the hopes of a new nation that is all but four years old. Fifty-five state delegates gather with you at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania State House, later dubbed Independence Hall. The place where the Articles of Confederation were ratified six years before, and where the Declaration of Independence was drafted before that.

The Articles provide for a loose confederation of states, sovereign in most of their affairs. The central authority—Congress—regulates currency, governs foreign affairs, and conducts war, at least on paper. In reality, these powers are limited, as Congress has no means to enforce its requests to the states for money and troops.

The Union will soon dissolve if the Articles are not replaced with a stronger central government.

The delegates inside the assembly room, representing states both large and small, are seated around two semi-circular rows of tables, each covered with a heavy woolen green tablecloth. Windsor chairs surround each table … a large glass chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

The room is adorned with portraits of revered figures like Revolutionary War hero General George Washington, who in the meeting’s first order of business is elected convention president. Washington takes his place at the table and large chair on the raised platform facing the delegates.

As the murmurs of conversation die down, Washington rises to his feet. Dressed in the simple attire of a gentleman farmer, he commands attention with his dignified presence. With a solemn nod, the president calls the convention to order, signaling the beginning of a journey that will shape the destiny of a nation.

Over the next three months, you watch delegates hammer out a brilliant, intricate system of checks and balances, with a bicameral legislature with equal representation of the states in the upper house (Senate), and proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives).

And on September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States of America is signed by 38 of the 41 delegates present at the conclusion of the convention. As dictated by Article VII, the document does not become binding until it ratified by nine of the 13 states.

* * *

Two hundred and thirty-seven years later, it feels like the promise of America is unraveling before our eyes. Opposing political factions are ripping the fabric of our union almost beyond repair. Anarchists are fomenting antisemitism on our college campuses … labeling disruption of classes and school activities, challenges to police authority, and property destruction as “peaceful protest.” Moral confusion reigns as our younger kids are taught things far afield of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The circumstances surrounding the new, fragile nation at the Constitutional Convention were every bit as dire, perhaps more so, than those we face today. Among the huge problems yet to be resolved … slavery and the lingering stench of racism in our land.

Yet Franklin found hope that America would emerge as that “city on a hill” that President Ronald Reagan would call America almost two centuries later.

There was something curious about the chair that Washington sat in during the continuous sessions at the convention. Each time the president rose to his feet, Doctor Franklin noticed the colorful emblem etched and painted at the top of his chair. At the close of the convention, he observed:

“I have often looked at that picture behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

This is the polished version that President Reagan used in his 1987 State of the Union address. He was paraphrasing James Madison, who wrote in the federal record what he’d heard Franklin express at the convention:

“Whilst the last members were signing it [i.e., the Constitution] Docs FRANKLIN looking towards the Presidents Chair, at the back of which a rising sun happened to be painted, observed to a few members near him, that Painters had found it difficult to distinguish in their art a rising from a setting sun. I have said he, often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”

It’s a question we must ask ourselves with the passing of each generation that has followed that historic time. Is the sun rising or setting on our American experiment? You decide.

As an optimist at heart, I side with Franklin’s assessment.

Author’s note: The “Rising Sun” chair is on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, not far from Independence Hall. It is considered a significant artifact of American history, symbolizing George Washington’s leadership and the pivotal moments of the Constitutional Convention.