Lost Photos of History – A Republic, If You Can Keep It

United States Founding Fathers

A Republic, If You Can Keep It

United States Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington & Thomas Jefferson

Today, we are so familiar with candid photographs thanks to the proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras (we carry one everywhere we go in our smartphones), we forget that was not always the case. In early American history, the only method of capturing our founding fathers’ likeness was predominately through the portraiture artists’ work. These tend to be formal and stiff. Thus, we have no visual clue what these historical figures looked like in less formal – candid circumstances.

That is until now! Now, through the magic of Adobe Photoshop, we can capture them in candid poses limited only by the imagination. In this candid photograph, we traveled back in time to discover the Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, discussing Franklin’s answer to Eliza Powel’s question as to what form of government we have. We engage in a lively discussion of the promise of the new republic and all the pitfalls that will challenge our keeping it.

United States Founding Fathers

“In September 1787, during the final days of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates set to drafting the Constitution of the United States. Powel is said to have shared an exchange with Benjamin Franklin, for which she is most often remembered. According to James McHenry, a delegate of the Convention, she asked Franklin, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” referring to the governmental structure of the newly formed United States. Franklin is said to have responded, “A republic … if you can keep it.”1

“On July 15, 1803, James McHenry published an extended version of the conversation in The Republican, or Anti-Democrat, a short-lived anti-Jeffersonian newspaper in Baltimore:

Powel: Well, Doctor, what have we got?
Franklin: A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.
Powel: And why not keep it?
Franklin: Because the people, on tasting the dish, are always disposed to eat more of it than does them good.”2

U.S. Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson based on their life masks.

About Life Masks:

Before photography, life masks were the best way to give us an exact likeness of their subject. Plaster would be applied to the head and sometimes upper torso to create a mold from which a life mask (cast bust) would be created. In addition to being three-dimensional, the faithful transfer process of the life mask creation eliminated the “artistic license” and “sympathetic treatment” employed by many contemporary portrait artists. Thus, using life masks created by J.I. Browere, Jean Houdon, and Jean-Jacques Caffieri, I am able to complete a forensic/academic study of how the subjects most likely appeared using Adobe Photoshop to add flesh, hair, and other details.

Founder's life masks

Browere’s “work achieved a stark realism uncommon in that day. His plaster busts showed the age-lined brow, the pock-marked face; his subjects appeared as they were, not as artists generally portrayed them. His life masks were, and remain, the most authentic likenesses of some historic figures who lived in a day before photography provided more easily obtained but similarly uncompromising portraits.”3

“Jean-Antoine Houdon a French Neoclassical portrait sculptor, best known for his busts of contemporary political and cultural figures of the French Enlightenment. His work is characterized by its lively sense of realism and lack of idealism, capturing his subject’s transient expressions. Influenced by Classical masters such as Michelangelo, he often sculpted directly from life or by casting his model’s faces.”4

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Sources & References:
1,2Elizabeth Willing Powel, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 November 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Willing_Powel
3Donald B. Webster, Jr. “The Day Jefferson Got Plastered” American Heritage (1963) https://www.americanheritage.com/day-jefferson-got-plastered
4Artnet “Jean-Antoine Houdon” http://www.artnet.com/artists/jean-antoine-houdon


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