“A republic if you can keep it”: Elizabeth Willing Powel, Benjamin Franklin, and the James McHenry Journal

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and early America specialist Julie Miller.

In the aftermath of the violent events at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, one year ago today, Senator Amy Klobuchar and other federal legislators reminded us that we have “a republic,” but only “if you can keep it.” The source of this quotation is a journal kept by James McHenry (1753-1816) while he was a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention. On the page where McHenry records the events of the last day of the convention, September 18, 1787, he wrote: “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.” Then McHenry added: “The Lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.” The journal is at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Oblique view of Powel house, looking southwest

Elizabeth and Samuel Powel’s house at 244 South Third Street, Philadelphia, where the conversation between Elizabeth Powel and Benjamin Franklin might have taken place. Historic American Buildings Survey. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

James McHenry was born in Ireland in 1753 and immigrated to the American colonies just before the Revolutionary War. He was an officer during the war, and served under Lafayette at the Battle of Yorktown. Later he was secretary of war under presidents Washington and Adams. His journal was among several that document the debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and it was used by Max Farrand when compiling The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (1911). The anecdote appears in Farrand’s work.

The “Dr. Franklin” McHenry quotes was, of course, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who had presided over the Constitutional Convention, which took place in his home city of Philadelphia; “Mrs. Powel of Philada.” was Elizabeth Willing Powel (1742/43-1830) of Philadelphia. No women served as delegates to the Constitutional Convention so, unlike Franklin and McHenry, Powel did not participate in the creation of the federal Constitution. Despite her exclusion from the Pennsylvania State House, Powel was a force in Philadelphia social and political circles. The money, connections, and positions of authority held by the men in Powel’s family generated the basis of her power. Her father Charles Willing and brother Thomas Willing (1731-1821) were wealthy merchants, and they and her equally prosperous husband, Samuel Powel (1738-1793), were active in Philadelphia’s political and civic life. All three served as mayors of the city.

Another source of Elizabeth Powel’s influence was her own social and political dexterity, which she deployed to make her home a gathering place for the city’s political elite from the revolutionary period through George Washington’s presidency. Among the regulars at Powel’s dinners and parties were George and Martha Washington, with whom the Powels became close friends. Letters exchanged between the couples are in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. One of these, from Elizabeth Powel to George Washington, dates from the third year of Washington’s first term as president, a time when he was hoping he would be able to resign the presidency and go home.

Detail of letter from Elizabeth Willing Powel to George Washington

“May you, till the extremest old age, enjoy the pure Felicity of having employed your whole Faculties for the Prosperity of the People for whose Happiness you are responsible, for to you their Happiness is intrusted.” Elizabeth Willing Powel to George Washington, November 17, 1792, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division.

In his 1789 inaugural address, and in many private letters as well, Washington made clear that he was longing to return to his retirement at Mount Vernon. Less than a week after his inauguration, he wrote to former military officer and South Carolina legislator Edward Rutledge that when he accepted his “duty to embark” on the presidency, which he described as “the tempestuous and uncertain Ocean of public life,” he “gave up all expectations of private happiness in this world.” In the fall of 1792, seeing the end of his first term in sight, Washington began planning his exit. Elizabeth Willing Powel was among the friends who convinced him to stay. In her letter she warned him that his political opponents would see his resignation as a sign that he believed the republican experiment had failed and, fearing for his own reputation, had “withdrawn from it that you might not be crushed under its Ruins.” She pleaded with him: “For Gods sake do not yield . . . to a Love of Ease, Retirement, rural Pursuits.”

As we negotiate our way through a time when facts and the evidence that supports them are increasingly under scrutiny, it is fair to ask if Franklin’s conversation with Powel, as recorded in McHenry’s journal, really happened. McHenry’s journal contains his notes on debates he observed at the convention. Did he also hear for himself the conversation between Benjamin Franklin and Elizabeth Willing Powel? Or did he learn about it from hearsay? Years later, after the anecdote had been published in the newspapers (sometimes with embellishments) and was widely known, Powel herself claimed to have forgotten it. “I have no recollection of any such conversations,” she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1814. “Yet I cannot venture to deny after so many Years have elapsed that such conversations had passed. I well remember to have frequently 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.”

Powel used her advantages and abilities to push through the barriers set in front of her as a woman and created an environment where the conversation McHenry recorded could very well have taken place. In 1787 McHenry believed that it had; in 1814 Powel believed that it could have. It’s entirely reasonable to believe that it did.

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One Comment

  1. Jurretta Heckscher
    January 6, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    An excellent assessment of a lastingly important conversation, with a pithy demonstration of how historical evidence can skillfully be interpreted included for good measure. Thank you!

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