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Republic Of Leaks
Americans have been invading one another’s privacy for political gain since before the Revolution
April 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 2
Everyone following the recent White House sex scandal must have felt the uneasy mixture of titillation and guilt that is always present when reading other people’s mail or eavesdropping on a private conversation.
The lurid excerpts from Monica Lewinsky’s taped phone calls made for irresistible reading, yet even the most rabid Clinton hater surely felt like a peeping Tom while devouring them. Some observers have criticized the surreptitious taping as an unethical invasion of the former intern’s privacy. “We will look back on this episode as a dark time in which America took on aspects of a police state,” wrote Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic . After all, who among us could have their private words and thoughts revealed without embarrassment?
As these questions sort themselves out in the coming months, it’s a safe bet that the public’s concern with privacy will vary inversely with how juicy the revelations are. For American history is chock-full of scandals precipitated by stolen letters, intercepted messages, and secret tapes, stretching back before the Revolution.
The most prominent, of course, was Watergate. There the taping was done by the chief suspect himself, instead of by an accuser, and most of those being taped were involved in one conspiracy or another. Yet few of them knew that their words were being recorded, and in vain did President Nixon protest that revealing the tapes’ contents would violate the sanctity of the Oval Office or fatally cramp future White House bull sessions.
Two centuries before Watergate, when voice recording was not yet even a fantasy, the Founding Fathers showed no reluctance to violate privacy rights in the pursuit of liberty, especially the privacy rights of a Tory. In June 1773 thirteen letters, most of them written by Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, were published in Boston. With the aid of artful editing, the letters seemed to urge harsh measures to oppress the colonists. Benjamin Franklin, the Massachusetts legislature’s agent in London, had obtained them from unknown intermediaries on the understanding (as he later wrote) “that they should not be printed, that no copies should be taken of them, that they should be shown only to a few of the leading people of the government, and that they should be carefully returned.”
When the letters arrived in Massachusetts, John Hancock and other noted patriots ignored all these conditions. Franklin admitted that the letter writers “may not like such an exposai of their conduct” but justified his actions on the ground that publication would create “good understanding and harmony … between the colonies and their mother country.” As Franklin had probably expected all along, it had exactly the opposite effect.
Between Franklin and Nixon, many other scandals have been launched when private words were made public. For example:
In April 1797 Sen. William Blount of Tennessee wrote a friend about his plans to lead an attack on Spanish possessions along the Gulf Coast. Blount’s aim was to deliver the land to Britain, driving France and its allies out of the region. The recipient had been told to burn the letter, but one day while drunk he gave it to a friend, who sent it to President John Adams. When confronted with the evidence of his plot, Blount could offer little defense, and the Senate expelled him. Five years later the United States settled matters peacefully by buying France’s American territories in the Louisiana Purchase.
Following a single term as Vice President that won him few friends, Aaron Burr concocted a plan to establish and rule an independent republic in the Southwest, possibly attacking Mexico in the process. In 1806 he wrote to U.S. Army Gen. James Wilkinson, a fellow conspirator, detailing plans for the campaign. Unfortunately for Burr, Wilkinson had already chickened out and decided to turn him in. At his trial for treason the following year, Burr’s ciphered letter to Wilkinson was a key piece of evidence. Nonetheless, the jury acquitted Burr, finding mere plans for a rebellion to be insufficient in the absence of an overt act. While the affair ended any chance for a return to public service, Burr’s well-earned reputation for deviousness proved no handicap in his later career as a lawyer.
In 1809, as war with the United States threatened, the governor-general of Canada secretly hired a shady Vermonter named John Henry to assess New England’s attitude toward a possible secession and reunion with Britain. Henry wrote a series of encouraging letters, mostly cribbed from newspaper reports and barroom talk, but the British refused to pay him for his work. Three years later Henry got revenge by selling his correspondence with the governor-general to President James Madison for fifty thousand dollars. The antiwar Federalist party mocked: “The Henry papers, bought and sold / And paid for with the nation’s gold.” Yet the revelation of Britain’s duplicity did much to propel America into a war for which it was very poorly prepared.