Elizabeth Willing Powel: The Real First Lady

Elizabeth Willing Powel painted by Matthew Pratt: Courtesy of Google Pictures

By Jake Phillips

Elizabeth Willing Powel is a name that has been omitted from history books for far too long. She is in fact the epitome of the unsung hero. Her unusual correspondence, and friendship with those considered the founding fathers, particularly with George Washington himself, placed her at the heart of the politics of Revolutionary America and the early republic, and allowed her to influence the development of the new country in ways for which she should be remembered.

Elizabeth Willing Powel was by no means a typical woman of the late eighteenth century. She had, in the words of David Maxey, “a thorough command not just of spelling and grammar, which alone would have distinguished [her] from many of [her] contemporaries of similar background, but also of style and expressiveness in [her] writing” (Maxey, 17). According to Maxey, Powel’s outstanding ability in writing translated into her overall having a strong education. In addition to her superb education, Elizabeth came from a family of wealth, and was destined from an early age to associate with the great men of the early republic. In the late 1760s it was rumored that she would marry the famous John Dickinson, but she ended up wedded to the wealthy Samuel Powel, who would later become the last mayor of colonial Philadelphia, and speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate. Samuel Powel was also the owner of great real estate including a mansion on Third Street in Philadelphia. This estate would prove the greatest acquisition of Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr. Powel.

Elizabeth Willing Powel in old age: Courtesy of Google Pictures

With the First Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, the Powel estate quickly became a common gathering place for large parties, hosting many of the delegates. Elizabeth was a spectacular hostess, and quickly earned a reputation as one of the great salonieres of the time. This ensured that the Powel mansion would serve as the salon in Philadelphia most frequented by the founding fathers, especially during the Constitutional Convention. As a salon many of the young country’s leading men visited the residence to “discuss current political and social issues” (Donocoff). This placed Elizabeth Willing Powel at the center of the political debates leading to the writing of the Constitution, and, unlike most women of her time, she was known to involve herself in the debates, and was always eager to offer her opinion. In fact, her close friend Anne Francis lamented to Powel’s sister, Mary Byrd, in a letter a fear that Elizabeth would be “ridiculed by the other Sex” due to her outspokenness about politics (Donocoff). Although her family and friends could not see it at the time, Elizabeth’s opinions were welcomed, or at least tolerated, by the founding fathers, and in the case of George Washington, were sometimes sought out. Her special relationship with the first president as his confidante more than qualifies Elizabeth Willing Powel as a founding mother of the United States. The collection of letters found at the Elizabeth Willing Powel Manuscripts Collection, along with countless others show that Mrs. Powel had a very strong friendship with the Washington family; she even wrote letters to their nephew Bushrod Washington and included him in her will. However,  in regards to George Washington, the relationship was more involved than a simple friendship. As the first President of the United States George Washington sought the advice of many people, especially that of Elizabeth. On one occasion, towards the end of his first term, Washington expressed to Elizabeth, in a private meeting at the presidential residence (the White House did not exist at this time), that he was contemplating giving up the presidency after only one term. In response to this Mrs. Powel wrote to General Washington explaining that to do so would be to bring about the demise of the republic. Clearly Washington took this opinion into serious consideration, as he decided to retain the presidency for a second term, telling Thomas Jefferson that the reason behind his decision was his “receiving ‘strong solicitations’ in Philadelphia” (Maxey, 35). This statement was no-doubt an allusion to this letter from Powel, showing that not only did George Washington seek her counsel, but that it weighed heavily on his decisions, which ultimately shaped the presidency of the young United States.

The fact that Elizabeth Willing Powel essentially saved the developing United States by convincing George Washington to take on a second term as president is enough for me to declare her a founding mother. Unfortunately for her, this one mere act, although great, would not be enough for historian Gordon S. Wood to classify her as a founding mother. In the introduction to his book, Revolutionary Characters, Wood discusses the various qualities that distinguish the founders from the rest of the American population. Among these defining characteristics are being a “product of specific circumstances,” part of a “self-created aristocracy largely based on merit and talent,” and the idea of the disinterested gentleman (Wood, 11). I believe, and Gordon Wood would have to agree, that Elizabeth Willing Powel exhibited all of these attributes, which would make her, even in his eyes, an important founder of the United States.

First, Elizabeth Willing Powel’s ability to influence the founding of the republic of the United States was based solely upon the circumstantial course of her life. The fact that she married Samuel Powel, a man of large wealth, and moved into a home located on Third Street in the center of Philadelphia, placed her in the perfect position to play saloniere to the intellectual and political leaders of the time. Her upbringing, which included an exceptional education, also provided her with the means to write letters and voice her opinions in a manner that was respected even by the male founders. This education also allowed Elizabeth to enter into the meritocracy to which Wood refers, and be accepted by her male acquaintances. Both of these qualities, as argued by Wood in his introduction, contribute to the idea of the gentleman; the defining quality of the founders. Disinterestedness – defined by Wood as exhibiting “virtue and self-sacrifice” (Wood, 16) – paired with this quality of gentlemanliness, was the key characteristic of the founders. Based on the testimony of Deborah Logan who said of Elizabeth Willing Powel that she was “just and honorable in her dealings and often generous to others,” Powel was, undeniably, every bit a disinterested gentleman, or should I say gentlewoman, as the other founders (Maxey, 4).

Resources:

Donocoff, Alana. “Elizabeth Willing Powel.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. George  Washington University, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Elizabeth Willing Powel Manuscripts Collection. CONTENTdm, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2014.

Maxey, David W. “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830).” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 96.4 (2006): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Wood, Gordon S. Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. Print.

 

 

 


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