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.
They’ve missed the most important element of the story: Who asked Franklin the question that sparked his witty response? It was Elizabeth Willing Powel, a pivotal woman of the founding era who has been erased from this story. Her erasure not only creates a founding-era political history artificially devoid of women, but it also makes it harder to imagine contemporary women such as Pelosi — or Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — as political leaders.
The first record of the anecdote appears in a 1787 journal kept by one of the delegates to the convention, James McHenry of Maryland. 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.” McHenry added a footnote to the text: “The lady here alluded to was Mrs. Powel of Philad[elphi]a.”
“Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia” was well-known. During the Constitutional Convention, Powel used her elegant townhouse as a political salon, hosting dinner parties and gatherings that provided a sociable space for political movers and shakers — and their wives — to meet and discuss politics. Powel was born into two of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most politically connected families; her father, her mother’s grandfather, her uncle, her brother and her husband, Samuel Powel, all served as mayors of Philadelphia. Her husband served as both the last Colonial and the first post-revolutionary Philadelphia mayor.
But she, rather than her husband, was the acknowledged political thinker in the marriage. As a French nobleman observed, “contrary to American custom, [Mrs. Powel] plays the leading role in the family,” and “what chiefly distinguishes her is her taste for conversation” and “her wit and knowledge.” The Powels were close friends with George and Martha Washington. When George Washington expressed doubts about a second term in office, she wrote advising him — successfully — to stand for a second term. Washington kept that letter until he died.
In 1803, McHenry first published the “a republic, if you can keep it” anecdote in an anonymous newspaper submission, followed by a series of writings and a pamphlet over the next decade. And while his story evolved to reflect his own anti-Jeffersonian politics, Powel remained at its center as “a lady remarkable for her understanding and wit.” In later renditions, McHenry set the scene with Franklin “entering the room” to talk to her.
As the story became better known, Powel tried to recollect the exchange. Writing to a female relative in 1814, she confessed that she could not recall “a conversation supposed to have passed between Dr. Franklin and myself respecting the goodness, and probable permanence of the constitution [sic] of these United States.” But that, she wrote, was probably because she “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.” Because anyone who was anyone attended her gatherings, it was difficult to keep track of the many political conversations that took place in her salon.
The “a republic, if you can keep it” story did not get much popular play for the rest of the 19th century — even during the tumult of the Civil War. In 1906, it achieved new fame with the inaugural publication of McHenry’s journal. Since then, it has been told and retold innumerable times — but in different versions that change with the times.
For example, a publication cautioning against electing Franklin D. Roosevelt to an unprecedented third term in 1940 was titled “A Republic if You can Keep It.”
Most critically, the central role of Powel was erased in the 20th century. The setting of the story moved from Powel’s townhouse to the streets outside Independence Hall, privileging an idea of the public square where only men’s ideas were heard. But private quarters played a prominent role in political debates. For women like Powel, shut out as they were from institutional politics, domestic spaces were among the few places they could engage in political discussion — and lead the conversation while hosting politicians.
The role of Powel herself changed over time, too. First forgotten as the host of the exchange, she was then recast as a nervous but ordinary woman rather than a “lady remarkable for her understanding and wit.” This version of the story affirmed the genius of the Founders, keeping infallible, elite white men at the center of the nation’s history. While Powel receded, Franklin remained omnipresent, a founding sage dispensing wisdom to lesser Americans — particularly women, the anonymous “lady” who replaces Powel implies — who need his guidance.
Even when she is still mentioned by name, as in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling book “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” (2003), she is described as an “anxious lady” who “accosted” Franklin, asking “what have you given us” rather than “what we have got”— a change implying her passive role in the political process. She is cast as a shrill, inappropriate woman, excluded from the politics of the nation’s founding.
In Pelosi’s and Gorsuch’s tellings, Powel is forgotten entirely.
So why does the history of this anecdote matter?
Tracing its twists and turns over the centuries, we see Powel, a politically active, influential patriot in her own time, shaped to mold expectations about the history of women and politics. The story shifts — from her own assertion that she couldn’t possibly remember all the many important political conversations that took place within her home, to one in which she is simply an “anxious” lady “accosting” Franklin, to the recent omission of women at all.
As we consider how and why America continues to elide the history of founding women from its collective origin story, we should take note that in 2019 we actually give less credit to this politically savvy woman than men did during the founding era. Recognizing women’s leadership in the past, as well as the present, might make it easier to keep a republic.