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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Sunday, November 03, 2019

The Story Behind “a familiar anecdote”

This past week, historian Zara Anishanslin published an op-ed essay in the Washington Post headlined “What we get wrong about Ben Franklin’s ‘a republic, if you can keep it’.”

It begins:
Last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, she used a familiar anecdote to back her arguments. As Pelosi told it, “On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”

Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it” line is as memorable as it is catchy. It is a story that appeals across partisan lines. The same month Pelosi referenced it, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch released a book titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a recognizable national origin story with broad appeal; Pelosi was savvy to use it.

But she got the story wrong. So did Gorsuch.
Pelosi did something many other people telling this story don’t, correctly quoting the question that political hostess Elizabeth Powel asked Franklin about “a republic or a monarchy.” After all, we’re facing that choice today. However, Pelosi didn’t give Powel individual credit for the question.

As Anishanslin acknowledged by link and tweet, she based her analysis on the series of Boston 1775 posts about the original exchange between Franklin and Powel, and about how James McHenry recorded and used that anecdote. You can read the whole twisting story, from 1787 to today, starting here.

1 comment:

Don Carleton said...

Great to see your work getting recognized in the Washington Post, John!