J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

“What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”

Yesterday I had a Twitter discussion about a well-known anecdote about the Constitution—whether it was equally well-founded in documents, less well-founded in reminiscences, or most likely myth.

In this, case, the story falls into the first category. James McHenry, who started the Revolutionary War as an army surgeon and ended up as one of Gen. George Washington’s aides, represented Maryland at the Constitutional Convention. He kept a diary during those weeks, and in 1906 the American Historical Review published that document. Yale’s Avalon Project put the transcript online.

Here is McHenry’s entry for 18 Sept 1787, the day after the convention’s sent its work to the Continental Congress and lifted its secrecy rule:
A lady asked Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.
In a footnote McHenry added, “The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.”

That almost certainly meant Elizabeth Powel (1743-1830), wife of the once and future mayor of Philadelphia, Samuel Powel. She was an active political hostess. Mount Vernon gives her credit for helping to convince Washington he should run for a second term as President. In 1808 a friend wrote that Powel
will animate and give a brilliancy to the whole Conversation, you know the uncommon command she has of Language and her ideas flow with rapidity . . . I sometimes think her Patriotism causes too much Anxiety. Female politicians are always ridiculed by the other Sex.
Above is Powel’s portrait, subject of a 2006 article/booklet by David W. Maxey, published by the American Philosophical Society.


J. L. Bell said...

When this story is retold these days, people usually leave out the word "monarchy." That word shows what was on the minds of people like Powel. Its disappearance may mean we no longer fear a monarchy, or that we don't like to think about how powerful the U.S. Presidency has become over the last 70 years.

Mary Jean Adams said...

Thanks for this! I have always loved this story, but assumed that it was fanciful. There's some sad truth to your comment, too.