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.
In 1867 Rep. Oakes Ames of Massachusetts wrote a series of letters to a crony named Henry S. McComb. Both men were backers of the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad, and the letters detailed Ames’s plans to buy support for the line in Congress. When their business arrangement turned sour, McComb sued Ames and introduced his letters as evidence. In the heat of the 1872 presidential campaign, they were made public. A halfhearted congressional inquiry fingered Ames and Rep. James Brooks of New York, both of whom died from the strain in 1873. Many other congressional leaders were implicated but managed to recover, including Rep. James A. Garfield of Ohio, who later became President. The biggest casualty besides Ames and Brooks was Vice President Schuyler Colfax, whose political career was ruined—no great loss, to judge by other nineteenth-century Vice Presidents.
In December 1897 Enrique Dupuy de Lome, the Spanish minister to Washington, wrote informally to a friend about the rebellion in Cuba and the possibility of war with the United States. In his letter the minister called President William McKinley a politicastro (bushleague politician) and spoke vaguely of spreading pro-Spanish propaganda in Congress. Early in 1898 a rebel sympathizer employed by the recipient stole de Lome’s letter, which was soon published in America’s newspapers, further inflaming a bellicose national mood. De Lome resigned before the United States could demand his withdrawal, leading one American editor to lament that an “experienced diplomat” had been “brought low by a petty thief.” A few days later the Maine blew up in Havana Harbor, eclipsing the de Lôme controversy.
In the 1930s Whittaker Chambers was a journalist and a Soviet secret agent. One of his contacts was Alger Hiss, a rising star in the U.S. State Department. In 1938 Chambers became disillusioned with Communism and left the party, keeping microfilm of correspondence and documents Hiss had sent him. Ten years later he showed the microfilm (which he had hidden in a pumpkin on his farm) to Richard Nixon, a first-term congressman who was investigating Soviet espionage. In testimony before Nixon’s committee, Hiss denied writing the letters or knowing Chambers, leading to his conviction for perjury in 1950. Nixon parlayed his triumph into a Senate seat, a slot as Dwight Elsenhower’s running mate, and eventually the Presidency. By that time, regrettably for him, he had forgotten what he learned from Hiss and Chambers about the dangers of preserving incriminating evidence.
Still, it should not be assumed that American history is an unbroken succession of sneaks and flatfoots poking through each other’s desk drawers and rushing off to the newspapers. In 1940, for example, Republicans obtained copies of letters from Henry Wallace, the Democratic candidate for Vice President, to a flaky guru and mystic named Nicholas Roerich. In the letters, written in 1933 and 1934, Wallace (then Secretary of Agriculture) fawningly solicited the guru’s blessings, invented nasty names for his cabinet colleagues, and indulged in such mush as: “Long have I been aware of the occasional fragrance from the other world which is the real world.”
After a good deal of controversy with his fellow bosses, the Republican national chairman, Joseph W. Martin, decided against publishing the letters. Privacy was the least of his considerations. Martin worried that it would come across as a smear, while others feared retaliatory leaks about Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential candidate, and his barely concealed affair with a long-time mistress.
Much more decisive action was taken by Grover Cleveland during the presidential campaign of 1884. One day someone brought him a packet of evidence detailing misconduct by his opponent, James G. Blaine. Cleveland needed campaign ammunition because stories were circulating about an illegitimate child he had supposedly fathered ten years before. When offered the documents, Cleveland handed over the asking price, inquired, “Are all the papers here?,” then tore them to pieces and burned them. “The other side can have a monopoly of all the dirt in this campaign,” he reportedly said. Moralists will surely regret, though historians must be thankful, that more Americans before and since have not followed Cleveland’s example.