Elizabeth Willing Powel was an important figure during the Revolutionary Era, a woman involved in the social and political maneuverings of the era. She was known as the premiere Saloniste of Philadelphia, in charge of a location where elite men and women in the late colonial and early national era spent their evenings. Among them, George Washington became a close personal friend of Powel's, often asking for her advice about his political career and personal life.
Elizabeth was born on September 15, 1743 to Charles and Ann Willing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the sixth of eleven children; her sister Mary would later marry the prominent Virginia planter William Byrd III. Willing married Samuel Powel on August 7, 1769, and the two moved into a home in the center of Philadelphia.1 Samuel Powel later became the city's mayor, a position he held until the American Revolution. The Powel home quickly became known for its lavish meals and superb entertainment. On September 8, 1774, John Adams, writing to his wife Abigail, exclaimed that it was "A most sinfull Feast again! Every Thing which could delight the Eye, or allure the Taste."2 Elizabeth ran her home in the French model of a Saloniere, a location where leading intellectuals and other elites gathered to discuss current political and social issues.
Powel's Saloniere remained a center of political life in Philadelphia into the early nineteenth century and she was deeply involved in political debates and readily shared her opinions. Her friends and family were at times concerned by her outspokenness. In March 1808, Elizabeth's friend Anne Francis wrote to her sister Mary Byrd that "when in society she [Elizabeth] will animate and give a brilliancy to the whole Conversation, you know the uncommon command she has of Language and her ideas flow with rapidity . . . I sometimes think her Patriotism causes too much Anxiety. Female politicians are always ridiculed by the other Sex."3
Following the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, a famous story surrounding Elizabeth and Benjamin Franklin arose. Elizabeth purportedly questioned Franklin on his way out of the Pennsylvania State House as to what form of government the delegates of the Congress had agreed upon. He replied, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." The story was originally told by James McHenry, George Washington's final Secretary of War.4
Powel had the most impact on politics through her relationship with George Washington. Washington first met the Powels in 1775 during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Through dinner parties and various social events, Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel became close friends; Washington would even frequently call on her without her husband present.5
Powel remained a confidante of Washington's throughout his presidency. When Washington was considering stepping down from the presidency after his first term, Powel made her opinion known. She wrote to Washington that his leaving office "wou’d elate the Enemies of good Government . . . The antifederalists would use it as an argument for dissolving the Union, and would urge that you, from Experience, had found the present System a bad one, and had, artfully withdrawn from it that you might not be crushed under its Ruins."6 Washington took the advice seriously and ultimately agreed to serve a second term in office.
After completing his second term, Washington sold his horse and carriage to Powel. Washington persuaded her to take both together in a letter written on February 6, 1797: "As the Coach would be lonesome without the horses- and the horses might repine for want of their Coach (having been wedded together Seven years) you had better take both."7 Washington's humorous words exemplified the warm friendship that he shared with Powel.
The Powels also made many visits to Mount Vernon. In a letter from Elizabeth to Martha Washington in November 1787, Powel thanked Martha for the "Sense of the elegant Hospitality exercised at Mount Vernon, where the good Order of the Master's Mind, seconded by your excellent abilities, pervades every Thing around you, & renders it a most delightful Residence to your Friends." 8 When Philadelphia was under threat of a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, George and Martha Washington tried to convince the Powels to leave and take refuge at Mount Vernon. Samuel did not want to leave the city because he was the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate. Powel caught the disease and died later that year.
Elizabeth Willing Powel outlived both her husband and George Washington. She retained a close relationship with Bushrod Washington, George Washington's nephew who later became a justice on the Supreme Court and the owner of Mount Vernon. When corresponding with Bushrod, Powel was unafraid to make her voice heard. However, she had to do so within the constraints of the time. When their correspondence first began in 1785, Bushrod wrote Elizabeth repeatedly, without taking into account the social expectation that a woman needed permission from her husband to write or receive correspondence from a man. She admonished Bushrod: "I thought your knowledge of what is proper & your Attachment to him would have rendered it unnecessary for me to give you any [Intimations] on such a Subject. I cannot ascribe your Silence to any other Cause than a misplaced Diffidence. Had you, attentively, read the note you received by Govr. Morris this Explanation would have been altogether unnecessary."9
Powel never remarried, remaining a widow for thirty-six years. She died on January 17, 1830. Her will reflected her long connection to the Washington family. In it, she left "Judge [Bushrod] Washington twenty Guineas to purchase a piece of plate as an evidence of my friendship and respect for his Virtues."10
George Washington University
7. "George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 6 February 1797," George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General Correspondence. 1697-1799.
9. Cassandra A. Good, "Friendly Relations: Situating Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic, 1780–1830," Gender & History 24 (April 2012): 26.