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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Thursday, March 30, 2017

“The all important Subject was frequently discussed at our House”

On 21 May 1814, Elizabeth Powel wrote to a relative named Martha Hare, commenting about an exchange with Benjamin Franklin from twenty-seven years before.

I haven’t seen this letter in full, only the phrases that David W. Maxey quoted in his article “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powell (1743-1830),” published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 2006. So I don’t know what Powel was responding to—what question or version of the story.

Maxey wrote:
Elizabeth Powel admitted embarrassment in denying “a conversation supposed to have passed between Dr. Franklin and myself respecting the goodness, and probable permanence of the constitution of these United States.” A similar version of the tale had been published to her knowledge “in Poulson’s Paper, I forget of what date,” while another she traced to “the late secretary of War.”
Powel was right in linking the story to a “late secretary of War”—that was James McHenry’s role in the Adams administration, and he was the author of The Three Patriots, an 1811 political pamphlet that featured the anecdote. I haven’t found the story reprinted in Zachariah Poulson’s Daily Advertiser, but it did appear in at least one other Philadelphia newspaper eleven years before Powel wrote, so she might easily have misremembered.

Maxey’s summary resumed:
Though she had no memory of accosting Franklin in this manner or of his memorable rejoinder, if indeed he delivered it, she retained a clear recollection of having “associated with the most respectable, influential Members of the Convention that framed the Constitution, and that the all important Subject was frequently discussed at our House.” If so, a hostess always intrigued by political matters may have been complicit in a breach of the rule of strict secrecy that bound the delegates in their deliberations. And if such indiscreet disclosures had occurred in her drawing room, what need would there have been to descend in the public street on “the justly venerated patriotic, philanthropist Dr. Franklin” for information already obtained at home?
I’m not sure whether Powel was really addressing the idea of a conversation “in the public street” or if that was Maxey responding to how the story was told in the 1900s. Likewise, Maxey appears to have been more concerned with the Convention’s “rule of strict secrecy” than Powel.

McHenry’s 1811 telling of the story said the exchange started with Franklin “entering the room.” (His 1803 version specified no setting.) That fits just fine with Powel’s recall of conversations “at our House.” McHenry set the anecdote after the Framers had voted to publish their proposal for a new Constitution at the Convention’s close. Secrecy was therefore no longer an issue.

All in all, Maxey’s presentation suggests the exchange with Franklin never happened. Maybe there are sentences in Powel’s letter to confirm that point. But the quoted lines say simply that she didn’t remember that conversation because she had been part of so many discussions with so many delegates.

It’s also possible that Powel didn’t recall the exchange because the version she had been presented with was so different from the conversation that actually took place in 1787. As I’ve noted, McHenry originally recorded a question of whether the new Constitution would turn the American republic into a monarchy; that had morphed into a question of whether the American people could withstand the temptations of a democracy.

Another possible factor in Powel’s response was her own political positioning. She had been a close friend and advisor of President George Washington. McHenry probably knew that, and may therefore have expected her to share his Federalist understanding of the exchange with Franklin. But Powel tried to keep the President above the sniping between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian factions of the 1790s. And in the way McHenry had published the story, he was pulling her onto one side.

Because Powel’s letter wasn’t published until Maxey’s article in 2006, it probably didn’t affect discussion of the anecdote in the preceding century. But Powel would indeed have been displeased by how authors have portrayed her.

TOMORROW: The anxious lady.

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