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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Monday, January 27, 2020

Elizabeth Powel and James McHenry Revisited

I’ve gotten some messages about this, so I might as well address it for posterity.

Back in March 2017, I wrote a series of postings about the anecdote of Benjamin Franklin telling a woman we the Constitutional Convention had established “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Some authors have been skeptical about that anecdote, but it appears at the end of the diary of convention delegate James McHenry, and he left enough notes to let us identify the woman as Elizabeth Powel. In his 2006 article “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powell (1743-1830),” David W. Maxey quoted a letter Powel wrote about the anecdote in 1814.

That’s where I came in. By looking at newspapers, I identified why Powel was addressing the story—because McHenry had published it in the early 1800s during his political disputes with the Jeffersonian press. In fact, I discovered, McHenry had reshaped the anecdote for publication so that it reflected his Federalist fears about the republic falling to democracy rather than to monarchy.

Since then, I’ve gone to Philadelphia to look at Powel’s letter in full and determined that she was responding (in a roundabout way) to an inquiry from her nephew John. I didn’t find John Powel’s initial letter, which would show exactly what tale he was presenting to his aunt for her reaction. I hope to take another look.

In the meantime, McHenry’s use of the anecdote got some attention. In November, as I noted back here, Prof. Zara Anishanslin of the University of Delaware published an essay in the Washington Post citing the anecdote as an example of women participating in the American political discussion from the start. She couldn’t convince the Post editors to cite Boston 1775 by name, but she did include a link back to this posting. She alerted me by email and tweeted the original links.

Then the impeachment process heated up. Lots more people started quoting Frankin’s “A republic, if you can keep it.” On 18 December, the Post published a “factcheck” article by Gillian Brockell, staff writer for the paper’s history blog. It addressed the question, “Did Ben Franklin really say Impeachment Day’s favorite quote?” (Here’s a syndicated version in case the original is behind a paywall.)

In that article, Brockell cited what Zara Anishanslin wrote in her essay about McHenry’s publications. But the link back to my postings didn’t make the transition, leaving no way for readers to see the sources. Or, some observers noted, who had uncovered them.

Just last week I was wrestling with this same problem in newspapers from 1841, pondering whether Philadelphia’s Public Ledger was the first to publish a couple of anecdotes about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. One printer after another published those paragraphs without reporting where they’d come from. I found the Public Ledger only by using a newspaper database. And perhaps this posting will help someone track back the story of McHenry’s anecdote.

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