What we get wrong about Ben Franklin’s ‘a republic, if you can keep it’Roundup
tags: Founding Fathers, Ben Franklin, womens history, Pelosi, early American history
Zara Anishanslin is an associate professor of history and art history at the University of Delaware, a postdoctoral fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World."
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.”