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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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

“We pronounce it to be an impudent forgery”

Two days ago I quoted an article signed “The Mirror” from the 15 July 1803 Republican newspaper of Baltimore.

Over the next month the same essay was reprinted in other Federalist periodicals:
  • Middlebury (Vermont) Mercury, 3 Aug 1803.
  • Spectator (New York), 7 Aug 1803.
  • Alexandria Advertiser, 8 Aug 1803.
  • Newburyport Herald, 9 Aug 1803.
(Five years later, on 18 Aug 1808, the piece reappeared in Baltimore’s North American and Mercantile Daily Advertiser, possibly pulled out of a leftover copy of the original newspaper.)

The target of the essay, the Aurora of Philadelphia, was not so positive about it, of course. On 18 August it published the third in the series titled “A Vindication of the Democratic Constitutions of America.” This was probably the work of the newspaper’s editor, William Duane (1760-1835, shown here). The essay’s main point was, “there is no disagreement on the fact that a democracy is a republic.” [And indeed, even today people have difficulty defining the difference between a republic and any form of democracy that’s not a pure democracy.]

The “Mirror” essayist had foolishly claimed those were different, the Aurora stated, and:
The writer who could be capable of such disingenuity and fraudulent misquotation, is open to the reasonable suspicion of every other fraud which would tend to serve his purpose. Of this character we consider an anecdote, which the Anti Democrat gives in the paper of the 15th June [sic], and which we shall copy here at once to protest against it as spurious and to show that its hostility is aimed at republican government, and, at the reputation of the man above all others least likely to belie the principles and political pursuits of his whole life.
The Aurora then quoted the Republican’s anecdote about Benjamin Franklin and the lady at the end of the Constitutional Convention before responding:
The republic here alluded to is the constitution of the U. States now existing. It is well known that Dr. Franklin tho he approved of the constitution altogether, would have preferred a variation in its parts. He held that the president should be elected directly by the people, in the same mode as members of congress are elected; and that the senate should have been chosen not by the filtration of the state legislature, but that an extra number of members, from each state should be chosen to the house and representatives and that the senate should be elected out of that house.

Any man who refers to the former constitution of Pennsylvania, will find that Dr. Franklin did not think a free people could have too much or more than would do them good of republicanism. The anecdote has no foundation, we pronounce it to be an impudent forgery. But it shews that the Anti Democrat is as hostile to American republicanism under one name as under another.
The Aurora had some claim to know what Franklin would have said since it had been founded by his grandson and protégé, Benjamin Franklin Bache. Duane himself wasn’t a Franklin descendant, but he had married Bache’s widow.

The Aurora’s attack on “The Mirror” essay, and the anecdote about Franklin in particular, produced this defense in the 9 December Republican:
This anecdote “The Editor” pronounces to be “without foundation, and an impudent forgery;” though no more than a mere concurrence with the universally received opinion, that men are more inclined to extend than to shorten the line of the liberty.

Who is this “Editor”? and how did he come by this information? The Doctor [Franklin] is dead, but the lady who related the anecdote is yet living, and of unsullied veracity. We should mention her name were it proper for us, to bring it into collision with his. We feel, however, assured, that she will, of her own free motion, confirm the anecdote, should accident at any time, bring to her knowledge that it had been questioned.

It is foreign to the nature of our subject to discuss the merits or demerits of Doctor Franklin’s politics. We shall only observe, that the Doctor was often happy in the adaptation of short and pithy sayings to passing events; and that the one in question, was not the only good thing the constitution drew from him. We still remember his story with the French lady, related in the convention, who, like “the Editor”, was, some how or other, always in the right.
That response was clearly from the same author as the 15 July article—Dr. James McHenry. Like the original essay, it carried the headline “The Mirror” and was festooned with classical footnotes.

Furthermore, McHenry came close to dropping the façade of pseudonymity to invoke personal authority. By writing, “We still remember his story with the French lady, related in the convention,” he hinted that he had been at the Convention himself. And he was publicly inviting Elizabeth Powel to “of her own free motion, confirm the anecdote.” But at this point, the argument was a draw.

TOMORROW: The story evolves again.

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