These are the times that try historians’ souls.
But none of the founders had the day Benjamin Franklin had. As the story was told and retold on the House floor, Franklin was walking out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when someone shouted out, “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
To which Franklin supposedly responded, with a rejoinder at once witty and ominous: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was the first to drop this anecdote as she opened the debate in the morning. But there were many more, from both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) and Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.), prompting inevitable tweets.
So, did Franklin actually say that?
With some changes.
The quote doesn’t appear in any of Franklin’s writings, nor in the transcripts of the convention debate, nor in any contemporaneous newspaper accounts.
According to quote trackers Bartleby and the Yale Book of Quotations, it first appeared in 1906 in the American Historical Review. But that doesn’t mean it comes from the 20th century; the Review was publishing for the first time the notes of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention.
This is what 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.”
The notes are both more and less specific than the legend. It was a “lady” who asked him, not just “someone.” But the location of the alleged exchange, outside Independence Hall, does not appear here.
Zara Anishanslin, a history professor at the University of Delaware, recently wrote in The Washington Post that even more details are known than that. In fact, in McHenry’s original notes, he included the footnote, “The lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philad[elphi]a.”
Mrs. Powel is Elizabeth Willing Powel, a prominent society figure and the wife of Philadelphia Mayor Samuel Powel. Like Franklin, Powel was known for her wit and knowledge. She often hosted convention delegates and their wives in her home, and later became a close friend of George and Martha Washington, who spent most of Washington’s presidency in the temporary capital of Philadelphia.
In fact, McHenry published his story much earlier than its 1906 appearance, Anishanslin wrote, in an anti-Jeffersonian newspaper in 1803, and in later pamphlets and essays. In one of these versions, he describes Franklin as “entering the room” to speak with Powel, implying this happened in her home and not on the streets of Philadelphia.
Though the anecdote didn’t become well-known until the 20th century, it must have gotten at least a modicum of attention in the 19th century. In 1814, Powel wrote to a relative that she had heard the story about her conversation with Franklin but couldn’t remember it herself.
Franklin’s witticisms often carry an ominous tinge — and were often edited. Another of his famous quotes from that era comes just after Washington had been elected the first president.
“The first man put at the helm will be a good one. Nobody knows what sort may come afterwards,” he said.
But that isn’t the full quote. He continued, “The executive will be always increasing here, as elsewhere, till it ends in a monarchy.”
There’s an extended version of “A republic, if you can keep it,” too. In McHenry’s 1803 account, Powel immediately shoots back, “And why not keep it?”
Franklin responds, “Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”
Members of Congress, interpret that at your peril.
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