Eliza Powel was a woman with strong ideas, and she wasn't afraid to express them

If Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States, Elizabeth Willing Powel could be the mama, caring deeply and pushing with all her power to exert influence on the outcome of the impending republic.

Powel’s life stood at the epicenter of the American Revolution. Along with her husband Samuel Powel, she entertained Philadelphia’s high society in their grand 3rd Street rowhouse. But though Samuel was twice the mayor, it was Elizabeth who hosted, bantering and exploring ideas with the men responsible for creating our nation.

If history had allowed, Elizabeth Powel’s name would almost certainly be mentioned in the same breath as the Founding Fathers.

We even owe the custom of addressing the head of state as “President” to Mrs. Powel, according to historian Douglas V. Gibbs.

Billy Penn is celebrating the dynamic woman who very well may have altered the course of history. We’re hosting a garden party on Oct. 7 at Powel’s home, the stage on which she politely challenged America’s top aristocrats as they debated the formation of an independent republic.

Eliza, as she was known by friends, was more dynamic than her husband. The Marquis de Chastellux was a high-ranking French military officer who traveled to the Powels’ well-positioned rowhome. Though he knew the husband as a public figure, it was the wife’s political acumen that captured his attention.

“[C]ontrary to American custom, [Elizabeth] plays the leading role in the family,” the Marquis wrote in his account Travels in North America. Remarked the Marquis, “She has wit and a good memory, speaks well and talks a great deal.”

Elizabeth Powel wrote Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington to recommend some reading. Credit: The Washington Library

‘Incapable of withholding her opinion’

During the tumultuous time of the American Revolution, everything was political — including parties.

Elizabeth mastered the art of hosting highbrow soirees modeled after French salons. She was one of the first to do so in the nascent nation, said Sarah Templier, a Johns Hopkins Ph.D candidate and McNeil Center fellow, creating a model that went on to be replicated by notable women like Sarah Livingston Jay, wife of founding father John Jay, in New York.

The Powels entertained the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and John Adams. Elizabeth moderated the tone of the conversation and influenced its content.

“According to her own letters, conversations about the Constitution were had in her house,” Templier told Billy Penn. Templier completed a master’s thesis on Elizabeth and her relationship to material culture, sociability and female agency.

“She was incapable of withholding her opinion on the direction in which she saw her country moving,” wrote David W. Maxey, author of Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel, “or on the competence of the leading figures in public life.”

Elizabeth was surrounded by other educated, elite women, Templier said, who would have also been at her home during these political parties. Still, her outspoken and well-versed discourse stood out.

“[Y]ou know the uncommon command she has of Language and her ideas flow with rapidity,” Eliza’s sister Anne Francis wrote to their sister Mary Byrd. “I sometimes think her Patriotism causes too much Anxiety. Female politicians are always ridiculed by the other Sex.”

One page of Elizabeth Powel’s letter to George Washington, urging him to run for a second term Credit: The Washington Library

The case for a ‘Founding Mother’

Still need convincing that Elizabeth Willing Powel woman has earned the title “Founding Mother?” Let’s look at the material.

  • Powel’s maternal grandfather Edward Shippen was the first elected mayor of Philadelphia. Her father, Charles Willing, twice served as Philly mayor. Her oldest brother Thomas Willing served in the Continental Congress and voted against independence from the British — which had to be awkward since Elizabeth was such an outspoken patriot.
  • Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew, was one of Powel’s mentees. In one of their correspondences, she lightly flexes her influential intellectual muscle: “As I knew you were a Member of the Virginia Convention I thought it might be agreeable to you to see in how masterly a Manner Mr. Wilson treated the Science of Government.”
  • She (probably) convinced George Washington to seek a second presidential term. In a seven-page letter, Powel called on her buddy George to reconsider his own fatigue for the good of the republic. “The Antifederalist would use it as an Argument for disolving the Union and woud [sic] 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,” she wrote emphatically. We can’t know for sure if it was this letter that pushed Washington to preside over the country once more, but the nation’s first president did save her letter in his own papers.
  • You know that cute University City-adjacent neighborhood called Powelton? Elizabeth Powel invented it. She and her husband purchased 97 acres of land stretching from the Schuylkill River to 34th Street, and from Hamilton Street to Lancaster Avenue. Several years after her husband’s death in 1793, Elizabeth built a $12,000 vacation property, equivalent to about $245,000 today, on the land complete with six fireplaces, marble chimneys and a columned piazza.
  • She opposed slavery!* This point comes with an asterisk because the Powels did own enslaved Africans while also employing servants. In her dying will, she bequeathed fortunes to a handful of Black “servants” and donated money to the Abolition Society in Philadelphia.
  • She survived (read: raged against) a brief but forceful British occupation of her once lively, opulent home, calling the occupation “irksome” in a letter to her sister.

Buried alongside her husband at Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch streets, Elizabeth Powel wanted to be remembered simply by the five words she chose for her tombstone: “Good sense and good works.”

Celebrate Powel’s legacy with Billy Penn on Oct. 7 at our Swanky Garden Party presented by Pristine Home Care. Expect live music, delicious food and great conversation. Tickets are $55 per person ($45 for Billy Penn members) and include all you can eat from Day by Day catering and drinks from Hale & True and Philadelphia Distilling.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...