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, March 27, 2017

How Dr. McHenry Operated on His Anecdote

As Dr. James McHenry first recorded the story of Elizabeth Powel, Benjamin Franklin, and the new Constitution in his journal, it was only twenty-six words. This was the entire exchange he wrote down (exact words, different formatting):
Powel: Well, Doctor what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?

Franklin: A republic, if you can keep it.
However, when McHenry made the story public in the 15 July 1803 Republican, or Anti-Democrat newspaper, it had evolved. Now the exchange was:
Powel: Well, Doctor, what have we got?

Franklin: A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.

Powel: And why not keep it?

Franklin: Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.
In 1787, Powel was concerned that the new Constitution, with its new national executive, would produce a “monarchy” instead of a republic. But by 1803 the word “monarchy,” which critics had thrown at the Washington and Adams administrations in the 1790s, had vanished from McHenry’s story.

The new version also added a lot more words: an explicit warning that “the people” could ruin the republic if they “eat more of it than does them good.” Again, that reflects Federalist thinking. A story of Powel worrying about monarchy had become a story about Franklin (now conveniently dead) worrying about democracy.

Now it’s true that eighteenth-century political thinkers, especially those who favored more aristocratic government, perceived a slippery path from democracy to monarchy. With too much power, they warned, the people would become prey to a demagogue who would then become a dictator and eventually set up a new dynasty. They saw examples of that danger in classical republics.

But in this case, it looks like McHenry was projecting his anti-Jefferson worries onto the story he remembered from up to sixteen busy years before. I suspect he was working off memory instead of digging out his old journal. But he may have knowingly reshaped the anecdote to what he thought it should say.

Either way, that story was now out in the political arena.

TOMORROW: Pushback in the press.

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