On November 4, 1792, Elizabeth Powel sat down at her desk in her elegant Georgian townhouse in Philadelphia and drafted a letter that she knew could change the future of the fragile United States government. Just three days earlier, her good friend President George Washington had confided in her that he was thinking of resigning. Powel was worried. Washington had voiced his hesitations to her before, but now the month-long election process was about to begin. Since Washington was running unopposed, Powel believed that his resignation would be injurious to the order of society. In response to their latest conversation, she decided the best way to convey the sheer “impropriety … or the Impracticability of carrying his Intentions into Effect” was to write a letter. Powel filled it with strongly worded “sentiments that would be inconsistent to their friendship to withhold.” It is the only surviving document written by a woman, and non-Cabinet member, on the subject of his resignation. It is also the one dated closest to the actual election.
Elizabeth Willing Powel was a force in late 18th–century Philadelphia. She was a political power player, in a time when women were not supposed to be involved with politics. Although she could not run for office, she used her home as her public stage, situating herself at the center of a robust network of powerful individuals. As her 1830 obituary would note, Powel had a “mind cast in an unusual mold of strength and proportion,” which drew people to her home for conversation and entertainment. She and her husband Samuel Powel, an intellectual and wealthy politician, developed a social network of elites by hosting events and salons at their home in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Powel directed these salons, participating in informal discussions that influenced decisions about the founding of the United States government.
In this 1800 engraving of cosmopolitan Philadelphia, the Powels’ townhouse, one of the finest homes in Philadelphia, is visible in the background. Here, the couple hosted some of the most important figures of the early United States. Library Company of Philadelphia
George Washington was a frequent visitor at the Powels’ home, and in the decades surrounding the American Revolution, he and Powel developed a close and mutually beneficial friendship. Although Washington considered Samuel Powel a close friend, his relationship with Elizabeth was especially intimate. She and Washington stayed in consistent correspondence throughout the 1780s and 1790s. They often discussed political happenings and their thoughts on pamphlets and literature. Through their friendship, Washington accessed Philadelphia’s cultural and economic elite, while Powel gained the ear of the nation’s most powerful politician. During the contentious deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington went to the Powel home at least 13 times, spending more time with them than with anyone else in Philadelphia. Elizabeth remembered these visits fondly, writing that she “frequently 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.” By 1792, Washington not only trusted Powel’s discretion and valued her advice, he also recognized her masterful knowledge of politics. In the final moments before he ultimately decided to pursue a second term, he confided in her.
As his close friend, Powel used both her emotional relationship with Washington and her own political understanding to convince him that the country could not continue without his leadership. She began by insisting she did not want to “give him Pain by wounding [his] feelings.” She cared about Washington, but she cared more about protecting the “welfare of their Common Country.” Powel was a staunch Federalist, and if the president stepped down, the government she supported would “crumble and decay.” She believed Washington “would not and could not” let that happen. Partisan politics were fast developing, and she knew his leaving office would only cause a deeper divide.
After detailing the deleterious effects that Washington’s resignation would have on the nation’s fledgling government, Powel skillfully deployed her emotional connection with Washington to attain her political goals. As one of Washington’s closest friends, she knew him in a way his Cabinet members did not. Aware that Washington valued patriotism and disinterestedness, Powel questioned if his actions were truly for the good of the country, or if they were instead rooted in unconscious selfishness. She also told Washington that the “consummation of his Wishes” would be “the Source of the keenest of his Sufferings.” Concluding her letter on a lighter note, she assured her friend that he would not regret his decision to stay in office. As long as Washington did his duty, he would “enjoy the pure Felicity of having employed your whole Faculties for the Prosperity of the People for whose Happiness you are responsible, for to you their Happiness is intrusted.”
Powel’s political knowledge stemmed from her voracious love of reading. Before writing to Washington, she read a European political treatise written by the Comte de Mirabeau, entitled The Secret History of the Court of Berlin. In the book, Mirabeau tries to instill confidence in a new king ascending to the Prussian throne in the 1780s. Powel recognized that the treatise could bolster her case. In a separate nine-page document, she meticulously copied Mirabeau’s best quotations on leadership and legacy, and reworked them into her own ideas. She then strategically inserted some of these phrases into her own letter, intertwining her words with his to craft a compelling argument: Washington needed to stay in office. The fate of the nation depended on it.
The draft also contains minor grammatical edits from her husband Samuel, who was at the time Speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate. Although Elizabeth consulted with him, they purposely kept the letter in her hand. She did the methodical work of constructing the letter, as well as the emotional work of appealing to Washington’s patriotic sensibilities. Because she had the closer relationship with Washington, the couple knew that her words would likely carry more weight. Powel copied her draft, making the few grammatical changes suggested by her husband, and sent the letter on November 17, 1792. A month later, George Washington was unanimously reelected president of the United States.
Washington accepted the position, though he continued to have doubts. In early January 1793, he wrote to a friend that as his “particular, & confidential friends well know,” the decision to serve a second term was after “a long and painful conflict in [his] own breast.” Elizabeth Powel was one of those friends, and among the most trusted. The appeals she made may have ultimately convinced him to stay in office. More importantly, she was the only woman he corresponded with about the subject. Today, we do not always imagine early American women as political actors, but Washington certainly did.
Born in Philadelphia on February 10, 1742/3, Elizabeth Willing Powel was a steadfast point in its political landscape for more than half a century. Her mental acumen and connections, shown through her surviving collection of nearly 500 letters, highlight the importance she held during the early years of the new nation. Powel’s contemporaries often commented on her taste for conversation, and uncommonly high level of intelligence. She outlived her husband by 37 years, and established a life of her own by building a new mansion, taking over the financial operations of her household and business pursuits, and becoming heavily involved in the philanthropic organizations of Philadelphia. Powel lived longer than most of the members of the founding generation, but continued to tell their stories.
Samantha Snyder is the reference librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, and an M.A. candidate in history at George Mason University.