These are heady times for historians in the United States. The Trump impeachment saga has made Lady Buzzkill and I even more highly desired guests at dinners around town than we usually are. People in our social set have lots of questions about the history of impeachment, and all the historic references dropped by politicians talking about impeachment on television. Naturally, I get asked about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868, the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1974, and Clinton’s impeachment in 1999.
Given what a buzzkill I am about “quotes” from historical figures, however, most of these questions are about whether so-and-so really said this-or-that. And I got one of these questions at a soirée last month. When announcing the beginning of impeachment proceedings, the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, brought up a Ben Franklin “quotation.” Franklin supposedly said this after the Founding Fathers had agreed on the broad nature of the new U.S. government in 1787. Someone from Lady Buzzkill’s social set asked me if it was genuine.
Here’s the story, as it’s usually told.
Philadelphia, 1787. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention are just leaving Independence Hall, having decided on the general structure for the new United States. A crowd had gathered on the steps of Independence Hall, eager to hear the news. A sturdy old woman (sometimes referred to as “an anxious lady”), wearing a shawl, approached Benjamin Franklin and asked him, “well, Doctor, what do we have, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied sagely, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
In most versions of the story, the old woman is supposed to represent the ordinary patriot in the new United States, wondering what the future would portend, but also fearful that the Constitutional delegates had chosen the easy and traditional option – a monarchy. Ben Franklin, among the eldest of the elder statesmen at the Convention, represents wisdom, and the foresight that decades in the Independence struggle had given him. We have a Republic, he conveyed, but it will be up to the people to keep it a Republic. And that duty will require constant vigilance in the coming centuries.
Heartwarming and sobering at the same time. Franklin confirmed the start of the Republic, but worried that it might be too innovative for the public to appreciate and preserve.
The quote has served just that purpose – a hope and a warning – for over a century, and has been repeated many times, and employed to support almost all shades of political opinion. But, did Ben Franklin actually say it? And why did you just say that quote has been used for “over a century,” Professor? Surely it’s been around for over two centuries.
Well, “maybe” is the answer to both questions. Franklin may have said it, and there is some good-ish evidence to support that. And even though it was first published as a Franklin-ism in 1803, it wasn’t widely known until the early 20th century. 1906, to be precise.
The quote appeared that year in an article in the American Historical Review. But that article was referring to the 1787 journal of James McHenry, a convention delegate from Maryland. Specifically, McHenry 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.’
Now as far as the reliability of quotations goes, that’s pretty good. McHenry wrote it down very close to the event, and seems to have been within his hearing distance. And, of course, McHenry, being an actual delegate to the Constitutional Convention, would seem like a reliable source. So I think we can fairly say that Franklin said it.
But, like Churchill’s famous 1941 “some chicken, some neck” rejoinder to the faulty French assessment that the Nazis would snap Britain’s neck like a chicken during the Battle of Britain, these words may have come out of the great Ben Franklin’s mouth. But the way the story has been told and, more importantly, the fuller context that the popular version leaves out, tells us a lot about the history of the period and the broader nature of the Independence movement than we usually take from the quote.
And we’ll examine both of those things after this quick break.
It’s the _world_ of Benjamin Franklin that should capture our historical attention and imagination here, not just the individual man making one comment. The fuller history of this quote shows some of that world, and some of the very important aspects of it that are left out of the sound-byte version.
Let me stress right off the bat here, Buzzkillers, that I’m relying on the work of some Washington Post journalists, Bartleby’s Quotations, and the Yale Book of Quotations for some of the context here. Most importantly, though, the work of Professor Zara Anishanslin, on the Independence period, and the broader social and intellectual circles that Franklin and the Founders moved in during that crucial period has been essential to my understanding of this quote. Please check the Buzzkill Bookshelf and the sources listed at the end of the blog post related to this episode for the details.
Here’s the history of the quotation and the broader history that is left out, as I say, by the sound-byte version.
In the first place, the short version of the quotation leaves off delegate McHenry’s comment that, “the lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia,” not an anonymous, anxious old woman with a shawl. And McHenry, who wrote down the original exchange, did not mention it occuring on the steps of Independence Hall right after the pivotal and decisive meeting of Constitutional delegates.
Mrs. Powel was a much more significant and influential figure in colonial early Republican America than the impression given by the story of an anonymous woman asking Ben Franklin what had happened.
Elizabeth Willing Powel was important because she was a member of elite Philadelphia society at the time, and was influential because she hosted many political meetings and parties at the home she shared with her husband, Samuel Powel, the mayor of Philadelphia. According to several accounts from the time, Elizabeth Powel had many Constitutional Convention delegates to her house, was very friendly with Martha and George Washington, and regularly had what were called “political salons” at home. These were among the most important social and political events in Philadelphia during the Independence years, and a great deal of high-level political discussion and debate happened there.
In fact, although her husband was the mayor of Philadelphia, most sources from the time refer to Elizabeth Willing Powel as the real political intellect and influencer in the family. She was variously referred to by diplomats and political commentators as “a lady remarkable for her wit and understanding,” for “her knowledge and her taste for conversation,” and, as on French nobleman wrote, “contrary to American custom, [Mrs. Powel] plays the leading role in the family.”
And McHenry’s 1803 description of the “a republic if you can keep it” conversation included Mrs. Powel asking Franklin her question upon “entering the room.” This, along with the well-known practice of the Powels holding political dinners and parties, strongly suggests that the famous exchange happened at the Powel house, and not on the steps of Independence Hall.
The quote got some play in the early years of the 19th century, but Mrs. Powel wrote to a relative in 1814 that she didn’t remember that specific conversation with Franklin, which she described as “a conversation supposed to have passed between Dr. Franklin and myself respecting the goodness, and probably permanence of constitution of these United States.” But, as she quickly added, the Powels and their social set, “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.”
So it’s the Buzzkill conclusion that the basic quote is probably accurate, but that we should also take the time to learn more about the broader nature (in terms of the subject matter, the place, and the people involved) of the political discourse of the early United States, in order not to overlook the wider range of influences and discussions about the construction of the new nation.
And there’s even more, Buzzkillers. According to delegate McHenry’s account of the exchange that he published in 1803, after Franklin responded to Mrs. Powel’s question with “a Republic, if we can keep it,” she said, “and why not keep it?” And Franklin continued, “because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”
A warning for our times, Buzzkillers?
Talk to you next week.
Zara Anishanslin and Jim Lo, “What we get wrong about Ben Franklin’s ‘a republic, if you can keep it’” Washington Post, 29 October 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/10/29/what-we-get-wrong-about-ben-franklins-republic-if-you-can-keep-it/
Gillian Brockell, “‘A republic, if you can keep it’: Did Ben Franklin really say Impeachment Day’s favorite quote?” msnbc.com, 18 December 2019. https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/factcheck/a-republic-if-you-can-keep-it-did-ben-franklin-really-say-impeachment-days-favorite-quote/ar-BBY8JhA
Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
In this authoritative and engrossing full-scale biography, Walter Isaacson provides the full sweep of Franklin’s amazing life, showing how he helped to forge American national identity and why he has a particular resonance in the twenty-first century.