Elizabeth Willing Powel (1742-1830) was a well connected and powerful intellectual who had significant influence during the American Revolution. She hosted dinner parties in the style of French salons where scientists, writers, and politicians could exchange ideas. In his diary, John Adams wrote a glorious account about the wonderful dinner party at her house after the first Continental Congress in 1774.
Powel herself participated in the lively discussions and corresponded regularly with the political elite. She was a close friend and confidant to George Washington. Despite her brilliance, her opinions weren’t always welcome because she was a woman. In 1808 her sister remarked “her Patriotism causes too much anxiety. Female politicians are always ridiculed by the opposite sex.” Indeed, articles about the Powels and the Powel House often revolve more around the history of her husband, Samuel, when by all accounts they had a happy marriage as intellectual equals based on deep mutual respect and friendship.
However Powel is part of a well known and oft repeated anecdote in American History. It is a famous verbal exchange between a lady and Benjamin Franklin.The origin of the story is a single source of a conversation that James McHenry witnessed and recorded in his journal entry of September 18, 1787. The lady mentioned was Elizabeth Willing Powel. McHenry wrote: a lady asked Dr Franklin. ‘Well what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?’ ‘ A republic,’ replied the doctor. ‘If you can keep it’.
McHenry’s journal notes from the Constitutional Congress were first published in “The American Historical Review” vol. 11. 1906. Over the years the story started to be reprinted in newspapers and slightly altered as the years went on. Sometimes Dr. Franklin walks into a room and is asked the question. Sometimes the room is identified as Independence Hall. Sometimes it’s reported as “a lady” who asked other times it’s merely “someone” or a “concerned citizen”. Sometimes is a crowd of concerned citizens who ask Franklin the question as he is leaving Independence Hall. Sometimes the question is: ”Do we have a democracy or a republic?” and other such variants.
In 1814, Powel was asked if she recalled the conversation. She replied that she could not be sure whether it actually happened or didn’t because she was part of so many important political conversations and it was decades after the incident occured. Franklin did not record the conversation either so it is not an original source quote from any of his writings.
From the papers of Dr. James McHenry which are archived at Yale
At the end of the notes for that day, McHenry wrote:
Philada. 17 Sepr. 1787 JAMES MCHENRY.
Major Jackson Secry. to carry it to Congress. Injunction of secrecy taken off. Members to be provided with printed copies. adjourned sine die. Gentn. of Con. dined together at the City Tavern.
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. [(Foot-note by McHenry.) The lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philada.]