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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Friday, March 31, 2017

“The story is told…”

As I’ve been discussing, James McHenry recorded in his diary an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Powel, and the results of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. And then he changed that story when he published it over a decade later.

McHenry wasn’t the last author to reshape the anecdote. His original notes were published in 1906 and reprinted in 1911, both times in authoritative publications. The tale those notes told was stark and simple:
A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it. [Footnote:] The lady here aluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.
But when authors retold that story in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they added unsubstantiated details which gave new coloring to the exchange. Here’s a sampling of reteilings culled from Google.

The University of Chicago Magazine in 1940:
When the delegates were going out onto the cobble streets of Philadelphia, prepared to celebrate on “capon and wine,” as the record reads, Ben Franklin walked ahead. A window opened and a lady put her head out and said, “Dr. Franklin, what is it—a monarchy or a republic?” He stopped and said, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
At the 1940 Republican Convention:
As soon therefore as the sage appeared upon the steps of this historic building a woman stepped out of the watching crowd, approached him eagerly and asked “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?”
[In 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term raised the specter of monarchy again. Ironically, Powel was the person who had convinced George Washington to serve more than one term as President in 1792.]

Sarah Watson Emery, Blood on the Old Well (1963):
When a lady asked Benjamin Franklin as he left the Convention, “What have you given us, Mr. Franklin?” he replied, “A republic, Madam, if you can keep it!”
At the 1968 Republican National Convention:
When they got ready to go home, Benjamin Franklin, over eighty years old, was the first to leave Constitution Hall. A concerned citizen was there and said to him, “Dr. Franklin, what have we got—a monarchy or a Republic?” Without hesitation that venerable old sage said, “A Republic—if you can keep it.”
Michael P. Riccards, A Republic, If You Can Keep It (1987):
Legend has it that as the aged statesman shuffled down the streets of Philadelphia, an inquisitive woman stopped him and asked, "What have you given us?” And Franklin is supposed to have responded, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.”
Richard Labunski, James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights (2006):
The story is told that when Franklin left the Assembly Room, a woman approached him and asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003):
According to a tale recorded by James McHenry of Maryland, he [Franklin] made his point in a pithier way to an anxious lady named Mrs. Powel, who accosted him outside the hall. What type of government, she asked, have you delegates given us? To which he replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Eric Metaxas, If You Can Keep It (2016):
McHenry wrote that when Benjamin Franklin emerged from the building that day, he was accosted by a certain Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia. Whether she was a young women or a dowager we don’t know. He was then eighty-one years old, the oldest delegate. . . . for all we know, he knew this now-mythical and otherwise forgotten Mrs. Powell, who has come to stand for all of America since the day when she spoke to Franklin in a tone that seems to bespeak some degree of familiarity.

According to McHenry, Mrs. Powell put her question to Franklin directly: “Well, doctor,” she asked him, “what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?“

Franklin, who was rarely short of words or wit, shot back: “A republic, madam—if you can keep it.”
What are the major trends in these retellings?
  • Powel’s position as wife of a Philadelphia politician, host of important political discussions, and trusted advisor to Washington is erased. She instead appears as a “concerned citizen,” “inquisitive woman,” or “anxious lady”—plus “now-mythical.”
  • The exchange, rather than happening in Powel’s salon, takes place out in the street, sometimes with a crowd watching. The woman’s role is often transgressive. In one case, she calls out her window. In two others she “accosted” the elderly Franklin with her question.
  • In a couple of versions, Powel doesn’t ask, “What have we got?” but “What have you given us?” That suggests a top-down grant to the nation from the delegates rather than a milestone in an ongoing political process.
  • Powel’s original worry about “a republic or a monarchy” is dropped, as in McHenry’s own retellings, in favor of worry about the fragility of republics.
All in all, I’m inclined to believe that the exchange between Powel and Franklin happened as McHenry first recorded it, with the additional detail he published in 1811 that it happened on Franklin “entering the room”—most likely a room where Powel was hosting a political conversation. I think Elizabeth Powel deserves to be remembered a bit more. And I think we have to be careful about all the other things we’ve probably read about this oft-told story.


AgNO3 said...

I have read the entire thing and I have read other research on the story. So I don't know how you come to the conclusion it actually happened. If McHenry was in the room with them why was it only Powell Franklyn and McHenry. If other where present why did no one else ever bother to mention such a weighty conversation that would seem to be pretty important to all those of the time. So I would love a brief explanation of why you believe it happened. It seems more likely that he added the quote in 1803. Who wouldn't name Mrs. Powell in the first place in a diary of a thing McHenry found to be so important. seems odd.

J. L. Bell said...

Your position seems to rest on the big assumption that everyone present at this exchange immediately perceived it as “a weighty conversation.” It seems more like a witty comment between two friends used to discussing politics (Franklin and Powel) which an observer (McHenry) noted in his diary because he thought it was clever. Years later he remembered the remark and brought it out again, with a different spin. Franklin’s remark been quoted a lot in the 20th and 21st century so we view it as significant, but McHenry was the only person to write it down, publish it, or comment on it for more than a hundred years.

Your position seems to propose that in the midst of political arguments in 1803 McHenry dreamed up a remark by Franklin, went back to his diary of the Constitutional Convention, inserted that remark as a reply a "A lady," then inserted a note naming Powel as the lady, then started publicly quoting that remark as authentic, and finally years later publicly called on Powel, a well known woman, to confirm his canard. That seems much less likely than the scenario I've described.

As to why McHenry didn't name Powel immediately, in 1787 I believe he (a) didn't think the identity of the lady was that important, and (b) adhered to the norm of leaving women out of public politics. Only years later after McHenry was trying to base an argument on that quotation did it seem valuable to state who the lady was, because at that point he thought Powel could confirm his memory.

Randy L said...

Leave her name out of public polo5ics? It was his private diary. And he has no issue naming women in other parts of his diary. He made this up. The LOC even states it mist likely didnt happen.

AgNO3 said...

I have not done as much research as you have only those bits that I reference but I feel if you feel you have enough proof of the claim that it is real you should ask the LOC to update this statement on the LOC website. As in my mind and my research based only on his diary entries as comparison to the very last entry in a diary. I am not saying you are wrong I just based on your own evidence and the other pages of his diary find it not congruous. This is the LOC link that states it to probably be false.


J. L. Bell said...

Randy L, here is the complete text of James McHenry’s diary of the Constitutional Convention. The only reference to a “lady,” “woman,” “widow,” or anyone called “Mrs.” or “Miss” that I see is the entry at the end about this anecdote and Mrs. Powel. So please share the basis for the statement “he has no issue naming women in other parts of his diary.”

J. L. Bell said...

The Library of Congress page is from an exhibit put up in 2008. The institution doesn’t usually update such webpages. I understand that they appear authoritative, but take a closer look. That page quotes McHenry’s notes as saying, “A woman asks…” The image from his notebook right next to that text clearly reads, “A lady asked…” That doesn’t negate the conclusions of the team that created the exhibit, but it does remind us of the importance of going back to original sources instead of relying on interpretations.

This series of blog postings brought something new to the investigation—the newspaper essays from McHenry citing the anecdote and adding a little detail to it. The Maxey article quoted in the postings also had something new. And the Powel letter Maxey quoted, which I’ve looked at myself since writing these posts, has yet more clues. Part of historical inquiry is reconsidering old conclusions based on new evidence. Thus, even if the 2008 Library of Congress statement was convincing based on the evidence available then, we should reconsider it now.

Personally, I don’t find that exhibit’s quick dismissal of the story convincing. Yes, the anecdote had been retold and embellished in so many ways, as the posting above demonstrates, that the incident had been turned into a legend. But that doesn’t mean there was no actual event at the start of that legend. Declaring that McHenry wrote down a fictitious anecdote in his record of the Constitutional Convention would seem to require a high level of evidence, and I don’t see any evidence offered at all.

DNinWI said...

Not insignificantly, it seems to me, Dr. McHenry in his diary immediately goes on to record what he no doubt considered an equally memorable riposte. I find it reasonable to presume that he intended to try to give a sense of the atmosphere attending the proceedings.

[Thank you, J.M. Bell, for your post, and defense.]