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The question heard ‘round the world


Last updated 7/3/2018 at Noon

It’s become part of the story. It was in Philadelphia, in 1787, the final day of deliberation on what would become the Constitution of the United States. Leaving Independence Hall, the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was approached by a woman.

“Well, doctor,” she supposedly said, “what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?”

To which Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

This was reported contemporaneously by one of the Maryland delegates to the Constitutional Convention, although it wasn’t noted or really discovered until the 20th century. It’s now become one of those stories about our founding days, anecdotal but with enough documentation to be generally accepted.

Something was asked, someone answered. It was Ben Franklin. It sounds like him. Good story.

I want to come back to this story in a bit, but first let me tell you about my brother.

My brother, a retired educator with time and curiosity, did one of those DNA things. He took a swab, mailed it in, and got information in return. You know about this process, or else you don’t care, which is fine with me. I don’t much care, either.

I enjoyed the information part. That solved no mysteries, though, because there really weren’t any. Look at any member of my family and take a guess at where our ancestors came from. Wow. Good guess.

So there were no surprises from this report.

Scandinavia, mostly, and the United Kingdom. We come from northern stock, then. We are Ice People. We are descended from Vikings, although that was a long time ago and I feel no connection. I’m not all that comfortable on boats, I’m not crazy about seafood, and the last time I pillaged was in a store called Woolworth’s and I was 3 years old, and I’m not talking about that story right now.

I’m not opposed to blaming my ancestry for my pale skin and wispy hair, but otherwise I can’t figure out what this has to do with me. My brother did turn up John Peter Sigars, the oldest (so far) record of someone carrying my odd name (it’s really odd; there are only about 200 of us in the world with this last name), born in Denmark about the same time as George Washington was born.

John Peter was my sixth great-grandfather; I am his direct descendent.

If you’re not interested in doing the math, I had 127 other sixth great-grandfathers. John Peter represents less than half of 1 percent of my genetic heritage. I’m going to arbitrarily say it was the way my right little toe curls in a little.

See? It’s maybe a little interesting but not really relevant. Nor is the fact that John Peter Sigars immigrated, or one of his offspring did, to North America at some point in the 18th century, where they found the rest of my relatives already here. They were hanging out in the Carolinas, with some in Virginia. Maybe one of my ancestors was a neighbor to George Washington. Or maybe he was a horse thief.

It’s hard to take this seriously.

I’m just pointing out that my family has been in this country since before it was a country. We have no Ellis Island stories, no immigration tales of degradation and hope. Those stories surely existed, just a lot earlier than anyone remembers.

And I’ve been an American, myself, for approximately 59 years and 49 weeks (just eyeballing it). I just got here. My ancestors are irrelevant, to me, except that they were there at the beginning of our national traditions. That beginning is what interests me, not family history, and particularly this week.

So let’s return to Dr. Franklin and the question.

This is a famous anecdote, with various commentaries over the years. Was Franklin just being witty, or flirting with this woman, eyes sparkling? Was he being sarcastic? Was he simply offering a warning, that with self-government comes the responsibility to actually govern ourselves?

All interesting questions. I have another one, though. Who was the woman?

No one ever says. Just a woman. A Philadelphia society woman, some say.

So I will say. Her name was Elizabeth Willing Powel. She was indeed a woman of means, a well-known person in Philadelphia, considered highly intelligent and eloquent on matters of this sort, and in fact was possibly the closest female friend George Washington ever had (not in a romantic sense), an adviser and confidant. She was a significant person in our country’s history, and would have been no stranger to Ben Franklin.

And when Franklin told her he’d given her a republic, he really meant he’d given it to her husband. The Constitution, hammered out 11 years after the day we celebrate this week, offered her independence from King George only.

Ah, well. Franklin was old and tired. I just wish he’d been more specific.

I wish he’d said, “Blueprints, madam.” Schematics for a civic experiment. Instructions for an idea, created but not yet constructed.

I really wish he’d said, “If you build it, they will come,” but I’m awfully sentimental in July.

Like this: I wish she’d replied, “And when they come, Dr. Franklin, escaping terror, seeking hope, fleeing an old life and looking for a new one, gathering at our shores for a glimpse of this idea … what do we do with them?”

His eyes would sparkle some more. “Call them Americans,” he would have said, but only because, again, I’m awfully sentimental in July.


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