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.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

“Dr. Franklin…met with Mrs. Powel”

In 1811, an anonymous pamphlet appeared in Baltimore titled The Three Patriots, Or, the Cause and Cure of Present Evils: Addressed to the Voters of Maryland. It was an attack on Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

Sixty-five years later, Frederick J. Brown’s Sketch of the Life of Dr. James McHenry identified the author of The Three Patriots as James McHenry, Secretary of War in the Federalist administration of John Adams. As I’ve discussed in the past few days, McHenry also appears to have written a series of newspaper essays in 1803 titled “The Mirror.”

And, just as in “The Mirror,” in The Three Patriots McHenry pulled out the anecdote he’d written in his 1787 journal about Benjamin Franklin commenting on the Constitution. And the story had changed yet again:
The day the convention finished their labours, and before the constitution was promulgated, Dr. Franklin, who was a member of that body, met with Mrs. Powel, of Philadelphia, a lady remarkable for her understanding and wit.

“Well, Doctor,” said the lady on his entering the room, “We are happy to see you abroad again: pray what have we got?”

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

“And why not keep a good thing,” said the lady, “when we have got it?”

“Because madam,” replied the Doctor, “there is in all republics a certain ingredient, of which the people having once tasted, think they can never get enough.”
The twenty-six-word anecdote that McHenry had written into his journal of the Constitutional Convention had, after nearly a quarter-century, grown into a firmly spelled out warning against popular democracy. This version gave more words to both Franklin and the lady from Philadelphia.

Most striking, The Three Patriots publicly named “Mrs. Powel” as a figure in this exchange for the first time, and politically savvy readers would have immediately recognized that to mean Elizabeth Powel, widow of a Philadelphia mayor.

What’s more, that story didn’t just stay in The Three Patriots. The 1 Nov 1811 Salem Gazette reprinted the anecdote (with slightly different wording and punctuation, and the name spelled “Mrs. Powell”). Other newspapers might also have picked it up. Which meant Elizabeth Powel could not ignore it.

TOMORROW: The lady from Philadelphia responds.

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