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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Sunday, March 26, 2017

“This prophetic answer of the Doctor”

Yesterday I quoted a short anecdote from Dr. James McHenry’s diary of the Constitutional Convention. That diary was first published in 1906, becoming part of the twentieth century’s understanding of the Constitution. But it doesn’t appear in any books before then.

I recently found, however, that the story also appeared in significantly different form in the short-lived Baltimore newspaper called The Republic; or Anti-Democrat.

In June 1803 George L. Gray became that newspaper’s owner and publisher. From the begining this paper opposed President Thomas Jefferson’s administration and politics—a little confusing since Jefferson’s party was also claiming the mantle of “republican.”

Gray’s 15 July issue included a long essay headlined “Thoughts on the essential qualities of a Democracy recommended to the serious consideration of the sober and thinking part of the community.” A subhead said “For the Republican, or Anti-Democrat,” showing that this was the first publication of that essay. That in turns suggests the writer probably came from Maryland.

At the end of the essay was the label “The Mirror,” which looks like a signature. However, later essays from the same author were headed “The Mirror,” so that was probably meant to be the name of the whole series.

At the end came twenty-five endnotes—a rare sight in newspapers then or now. Most of those notes cited classical sources: Aristotle, Xenophon, Demosthenes, and so on. One pointed to the target of the essay: the Jeffersonian newspaper in Philadelphia called the Aurora. Another cited the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. So the pseudonymous author was educated and wanted readers to know it.

The essay began:
The deepest thinker of all antiquity, after examining and comparing the theory and practice of upwards of two hundred commonwealths, the justly celebrated Aristotle, whom the great [John] Locke acknowledged “a master in politics,” speaking of the different kinds of government, observes, of the republic, that it is “prone to degenerate into democracy.”

Doctor [Benjamin] Franklin, our countryman, who was certainly well read in human nature, held on this point the same opinion as the Stagirite [i.e., Aristotle]. Being asked by a lady of Philadelphia remarkable for wit and good sense, on the dissolution of the convention which frames the constitution—“well Doctor what have we got?”

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

“And why not keep it?“ rejoined the Lady.

“Because,” replied the Doctor, “the people on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”

Sixteen years have not elapsed since this prophetic answer of the Doctor, and what do we behold! Men openly and voluntarily affirming the name of Democrat, and loudly proclaiming “the constitution of the United States is a Democracy, the American governments are in every respect completely and perfectly Democracies,” and those who will not so consider them, “fools, despicable knaves, or imposters.”

Such is the dogma and language of the Aurora.
The author of this essay was almost certainly James McHenry. In 1803 he was living in Baltimore, retired from active politics after a contentious stint as John Adams’s Federalist Secretary of War. He is the only person we can be sure already knew the anecdote about Franklin. And his papers at the Library of Congress include a file labeled as “Drafts of articles for The Mirror, undated.”

TOMORROW: How the anecdote had changed.

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