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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Saturday, March 25, 2017

“A republic…if you can keep it.”

This is the launch of a deep dive into one of the most popular and portentous anecdotes from the Constitutional Convention of 1787. I wrote about that story before, but a prodding tweet from Zara Anishanslin sent me further into the depths.

The earliest appearance of the anecdote is on the last page of Dr. James McHenry’s journal of his experience as a convention delegate. Here’s the text, as transcribed at Yale Law School’s Avalon Project:
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.
To which McHenry added this footnote:
The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
As I wrote back here, that meant Elizabeth Powel, host of a political salon and wife of the city’s once and future mayor.

We can even see the story in McHenry’s own writing courtesy of the Library of Congress (from which I cribbed the image above).

This is the last entry in McHenry’s journal. The Convention had broken up on 17 Sept 1787, and delegates were heading home. If the story had appeared in the journal between two dated entries, we could be sure of when McHenry wrote it down. But as it is, all we know is that he wrote it down after 17 September—perhaps the next day, perhaps when he got home to Maryland and put his papers away, perhaps years later.

And then at some further moment in time, McHenry went back into this document and added the footnote naming Powel. His writing was a little larger then. The reference to her as “Mrs. Powel of Philade.” suggests he had left that city.

I suspect that McHenry wrote down the anecdote in 1787, soon after the Convention ended. There’s no clue as to whether he witnessed the exchange himself or simply heard about it from Franklin or Powel or another direct witness. It seems unlikely that McHenry wrote down a story that lots of people were circulating because there don’t seem to be any other tellings.

As for the footnote, that might well date from years later when the anecdote and its source were being questioned.

McHenry’s diary was published in the American Historical Review in 1906. Five years later, Max Farrand quoted his stories in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. That made the anecdote close to canonical in our national history of the Convention, and many authors have quoted it since—though often with some unexplained doubt that it really took place.

There are some interesting points to consider about how authors retold and used the story in the 1900s, but first I want to discuss the preceding century. Google Book turned up no versions of the story from book published in the 1800s, leading me to think it was buried in McHenry’s papers until 1906.

But I found it was actually deployed—almost certainly by McHenry himself—in political debate during the Jefferson and Madison administrations.

TOMORROW: The anecdote resurfaces.

1 comment:

NH Guy said...

This story is one of the reasons I love this blog.