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The Dawning Of The Leak

May 2024
1min read

Often the main conduit for an inspired leak has been l he press, and sometimes this has given rise to swelling freshets of public agitation. None, however, caused more of a Hash flood than the earliest major leak in the nation’s history. In the summer of 1795 the Philadelphia newspaper Aurora printed a copy of a treaty negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay with the government of Great Britain. Its disclosure outraged the Senate, which had voted to keep the treaty secret until mutually ratified by both nations; it also threw the country into a furor because most citizens felt that Jay had been altogether too subservient to the British with regard to American commerce, freedom of the seas, British posts in the West, and other sensitive matters. George Washington said that public reaction to the treaty, after the leak, was “like that against a mad dog”; frenzied mobs gathered in both the North and the South to shout down the document; Alexander Hamilton was pelted with stones when he tried to defend it in New York; Jay himself, someone observed, could have walked from one end of the country to the other at midnight by the light of fires burning him in effigy.

It turned out that Virginia’s Senator Stevens l . Mason, a sturdy anti-Federalist, had handed a copy of the treaty to Pierre Adét, French minister to the United States. Since his country was at war with England and hated the idea of a treaty of “amity” between her and the United States, Adét gave the document to Benjamin Bache, publisher of the Aurora , with the hope of raising just the sort of public outcry that ensued—and even, perhaps, of blocking ratification of the treaty.

Although Federalist apologists rallied to the defense of Jay’s treaty, and the country calmed down considerably, there was a tough struggle in the House of Representatives over whether to support the treaty—narrowly won, in the end, by the Federalists. The deliberate leak had served the purpose of venting publicly a controversial issue, and causing widespread discussion (as well as many a fist fight) in a manner thai can only be described as aggressively democratic.

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