From Snowden To Manning… To Ben Franklin And Sam Adams? A History Of Leakers Of Secret Gov't Documents

from the there's-a-line dept

We’re taking a little break for the holidays, but will be posting a couple of less timely stories to keep things interesting…

For all the talk from some about how terrible and “anti-American” Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning are for distributing secret government documents that revealed misbehavior on the part of the government, the Digsby blog highlights a historical parallel that I hadn’t heard about before: the Hutchinson Letters Affair, in which Benjamin Franklin essentially played the role of Snowden and Manning.

The short version is that Franklin obtained — through means unknown — a packet of letters written by Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver to Thomas Whately, the assistant to UK Prime Minister George Grenville, concerning how to deal with the increasingly angry colonists in the late 1760s. This was at the time that colonists — especially in Massachusetts — were increasingly angry about moves by the UK to raise taxes and remove their rights. Hutchinson more or less suggested accelerating the process.

In the letters, Hutchinson made some damning comments about colonial rights. Even more provocative, Hutchinson recommended that popular government be taken away from the colonists “by degrees”, and that there should be “abridgement of what are called English liberties”. Specifically, he argued that all colonial government posts should be made independent of the provincial assemblies. Finally, he urged his superiors to send more troops to Boston to keep American rebels under control.

Upon obtaining these (while in London), Franklin realized that they were somewhat explosive, and he quickly sent copies to some friends in the US, starting with Thomas Cushing (apparently no known relation to our own Tim Cushing), and told him to share them with others, but to not have them published. However, after Cushing and Sam Adams saw them, they figured out how to get them out:

The letters arrived in Massachusetts in March 1773, and came into the hands of Samuel Adams, then serving as the clerk of the Massachusetts assembly. By Franklin’s instructions, only a select few people, including the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence, were to see the letters. Alarmed at what they read, Cushing wrote Franklin, asking if the restrictions on their circulation could be eased. In a response received by Cushing in early June, Franklin reiterated that they were not to be copied or published, but could be shown to anyone.

A longtime opponent of Hutchinson’s, Samuel Adams narrowly followed Franklin’s request, but managed to orchestrate a propaganda campaign against Hutchinson without immediately disclosing the letters. He informed the assembly of the existence of the letters, after which it designated a committee to analyze them. Strategic leaks suggestive of their content made their way into the press and political discussions, causing Hutchinson much discomfort. The assembly eventually concluded, according to John Hancock, that in the letters Hutchinson sought to “overthrow the Constitution of this Government, and to introduce arbitrary Power into the Province”, and called for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver.[ Hutchinson complained that Adams and the opposition were misrepresenting what he had written, and that nothing he had written in them on the subject of Parliamentary supremacy went beyond other statements he had made. The letters were finally published in the Boston Gazette in mid-June 1773, causing a political firestorm in Massachusetts and raising significant questions in England.

There was apparently then a huge hullabaloo over who leaked the letters, even leading to a duel in England, before Franklin stepped up and admitted to “leaking” the letters, and then defended that action, by noting that the letters were written by “public officials for the purpose of influencing public policy,” and thus implying that it was reasonable for the public to know about them. In other words, the same basic reasons behind what Manning and Snowden did. Franklin did get punished for all of this, but it was nothing compared to the fates of Snowden and Manning. As Harry Blutstein writes in the link above:

On January 29, 1774, Franklin was hauled up before the Privy Council to explain why he had leaked letters in the ‘Hutchinson Affair’. He was accused of thievery and dishonor, called the “prime mover” of Boston’s insurgents and charged with being a “true incendiary”. Throughout the hearing, Franklin maintained a dignified silence. For his disloyalty to the Crown, he Privy Council held off sending Franklin the gallows or even sentencing him to an afternoon in the stocks. Instead, Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn was satisfied with the tongue-lashing he meted out to Franklin and the next day the Board of Trade dismissed Franklin from his post as Deputy Postmaster General of the North America colonies.

Had the Espionage Act been in place in Great Britain in 1774, Franklin would not have been around to lead the War of Independence, nor would he have been around to raise vital funds to support the rebellion and we would not have seen his signature on the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution.

Perhaps those who are slamming Snowden and Manning as “traitors” ought to learn a little history about some of our most famous and respected founding fathers.

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Comments on “From Snowden To Manning… To Ben Franklin And Sam Adams? A History Of Leakers Of Secret Gov't Documents”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Deja vu anyone?

…recommended that popular government be taken away from the colonists ?by degrees?

How’s that saying go, ‘Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’? Seems the current government has been taking some tips and pointers from their history books, and it’s pretty obvious which side they’re looking to emulate.

Anonymous Coward says:

For all the talk from some about how terrible and “anti-American” Ed Snowden and Chelsea Manning are for distributing secret government documents that revealed misbehavior on the part of the government,

Anybody condemning such leaks should consider that without them they, or their children, will wakeup some morning to find that they have become serfs. When a government is allowed to use secrecy to keep it activities from the population, they can become rulers rather than representatives. When that happens, the only way for the people to change how they are rules is by means of an open rebellion. The leaks give the citizens an opportunity to convince their representatives to do their job properly, or failing that, choose new representatives before it is too late.

Anonymous History Buffoon says:

Franklin's Turning Point

Up until when Franklin saw these letters, he was a calming factor, and against any revolution. He was a devout English loyalist.

The Hutcheson letters were Franklin’s tipping point. He left england shortly after his little todo with the Solicitor General and came back to America. Franklin became a turncoat.

Dirt Reader says:

Wait a minute

This story might not illustrate what Mike thinks it illustrates. If Franklin held the post of Deputy Postmaster General of the North America colonies, then he might well have come into possesion of the letters (or made copies of them) by taking advantage of his government position to snoop on people’s mail.

In other words, his behavior in this situation might have been as much like that of the NSA as it was like that of Snowden. One might wonder what other private correspondence Frankin snooped upon and for what reasons. Perhaps he should be considered the founding father of the NSA, the National Snooping Agency, for abusing his government positon to spy on people’s mail.

HegemonicDistortion says:

Re: Wait a minute

It wasn’t Franklin’s position in the government that’s key to Mike’s analogy though, but rather the leaking of officials’ plans against the rights of the people. The analogy you present of Franklin to the NSA would really only hold if the NSA leaked Clapper’s (or Cheney’s, Obama’s, or other subverters of civil liberties, etc.) correspondence.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wait a minute

I would imagine if that were the case then Franklin would have been alone in opening, reading, and resealing the mail that he was intercepting. I would imagine that because of this he would have had to target specific people in order to be remotely effective (granted I have no idea what the volume of mail looked like at that time). Due to this, assuming you are correct, this becomes an example of how specifically targeted surveillance can be more useful that mass collection.

Roland says:

postmaster general

As postmaster general for the colonies, Ben was responsible for the safe & private delivery of the mail. But I would not be surprised if he was under secret orders to examine the mail for signs of insurrection. This is a conflict NSA employees now face every day. Or he got copies from a leaker in the GB PO after leaving that office. So the comparison is even more fitting.

@Spaceman Spiff:
In his youth, Ben was quite athletic, and popular among the ladies. He was an accomplished swimmer when such a thing was almost unknown. You can’t charaterize someone solely from the afflictions of his old age.

Anony-mouse says:

Typical of the US government...

When the US was in rebellion, they created and employed gorila tactics, terrorist tactics, treason, etc.

Now that they’re the largest dog in the pound, they don’t really appreciate when others use the same tactics that they employed (and sometimes STILL employ).

Just because the country was founded on these practices, they should now be considered wrong. Typical of bullies!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Typical of the US government...

Standing up and beating your chest in testosterone induced displays designed to conjure fear in the minds of those who would oppose you. Such tactics are used by government officials all the time against their enemies. (See Reps. King and Rogers for examples of such tactics being used.}

Anonymous Coward says:

Thailand watch

Over in Thailand we have elections due, a wannabe dictator named Suthep and his friends are demanding a ‘reform’ government of 400 of his cronies be put in power. His cronies are all powerful people in government.

A small band (less than 200) of violent students are trying to stop the elections by barring the registration of candidates, the police used water cannon and rubber bullets to clear them, and one of the police was shot and killed in return.

The dictators cronies in government agencies are trying to use this as an excuse to seize power. The elected PM isn’t really in charge, she negotiates with the government agencies to obey the laws of Thailand.

This morning, an Electoral Commissioner said the EC would resign stopping elections if the elections went ahead in this violence. Exactly what the protestors are trying to achieve, is what he is trying to deliver.

This afternoon, the army chief refused to rule out a coup, asking both sides to stop the violence. (The police and the protestors!). He has been talking up civil war as an excuse for another coup and it looks like he’ll get his way unless the Supreme Commander (that outranks him) fires him first.

Meanwhile the straw poles suggest Yingluk will win again by a bigger majority than last time. Maybe even win the Bangkok vote and lots of the Southern provinces, which is why they’re so keen to prevent the election. They were set to lose them badly.


Yes I’m off topic, but when a takeover happens the first thing they do is cut the internet cables. So I post on a public forum while I’m still free to do so.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:

Re: Thailand watch

Our thoughts and (non-denominational) prayers are with the people of Thailand. My best friend in school (1962-1963) was Thai, and he was one of the finest people I ever knew. He taught me Savate, a skill that has stood me in good stead over the years. Given that at 16 he was the Thai national savate champion in the under-18 category (or whatever equivalent they had at the time), he was more than capable of teaching the art! 🙂

Anonymous Coward says:

those doing the slamming today know full well what happened then, how history was shaped and what could happen today. if they can’t stop what has happened, they are probably thinking that if a big enough punishment is handed out now, things will stay as they are and not progress to make the country a public place rather than a private industries only nation as there is atm

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Perhaps those who are slamming Snowden and Manning as "traitors" ought to learn a little history about some of our most famous and respected founding fathers.

One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.

Nor true, some fight to allow people to exercise self determinism, and others fight to impose their chosen brand of rule on the people. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandi were in the first camp, and respected by their enemies. Stalin. Mao and Pol Pot were in the second camp, and terrorised the people they ruled over.

Andrew F (profile) says:

Technically ...

If you ask the British, Ben Franklin WAS a traitor. He betrayed his old country in the interests of his new country. It may very well have been justified, but what he did was literally treason.

The end game for Ben Franklin was a revolutionary war. Let’s hope it never comes to that. Inane quotes about revolution and liberty aside, war sucks. Violence sucks. And the batting average for successful (violent) revolutions is terrible as of late.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Technically ...

The legal definition of treason:

The betrayal of one’s own country by waging war against it or by consciously or purposely acting to aid its enemies.

Key distinction: At the time this occurred, independence had not been declared. His actions were purposely and consciously done to benefit of the public of the colonies. Thus for Franklin’s actions to fit the legal definition of treason, the people of the colonies would have had to be considered the enemy of the England. In the same way, Snowden’s actions were done purposely and consciously to benefit othe public and for those actions to fit the legal definition of treason, you would have to accept that the public is the enemy of the US government.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Technically ...

…you would have to accept that the public is the enemy of the US government.

Considering the government has all but come out and admitted that that is exactly how they see the US public*, from their point of view then informing the public of the USG’s actions is ‘purposely acting to aid it’s enemies’.

*As an example: mass surveillance of US citizens is a horribly inefficient way to do things if the aim is to catch foreign enemies(which is supposed to be the entire point), especially in a timely manner, but it makes perfect sense if the aim to is catch domestic enemies/trouble-makers, or get information allowing them to be controlled/’persuaded’ in the future.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Technically ...

First, my comment was directed at the previous commentor’s assertion that this action technically was treason, not that the government viewed it as such. As for the governments views, I don’t honestly believe that they truly view the public as the enemy, but rather that the neocons in government simply don’t care what the public thinks or what the laws are. It’s a criminal mindset. Most criminals don’t harbor ill feelings toward their victims, they simply don’t care how they affect others or what the laws against their actions are and are not going to let anything stand in the way of pursuing their agendas. It is this selfish, criminal mindset at work here.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Technically ...

True, for the vast majority it’s probably less malice, and more indifference, where they really do think they’re ‘protecting american citizens’, it’s just they gotten to the point where they don’t really care about any collateral damage like privacy or rights that may get in the way, figuring they’re ‘acceptable sacrifices’.

Very much an ‘ends justify the means’ mindset, the problem is as soon as you start thinking that way, nothing is out of bounds, as everything becomes acceptable as long as the ‘goal’ is achieved, and when the goal is an impossibility, ‘perfect safety and security’, then things will just get worse and worse as time passes.

Anonymous Coward says:

the principle enemy of the british government is and throughout history has been the british people wherever in the world they might be.? thus the american colonists were, indeed, the enemy, and our government here today has finally adopted the british way and has declared war on its people wherever in the world we are.

we are the enemy and must be subjugated at all costs if the british way of rule is to reign triumphant here.? our leadership is dedicated that that will come to pass, and it is up to us, the people, to see that it will not.

thanks to courageous whistle-blowers, the ball is in our court and we are aware of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

it occurs to me to flesh out a bit of my view of the brits.? i spent a fair amount of time on uk websites after the discovery of richard3’s bones under the remains of the friary henry8 leveled in his bid to focus all control in his hands.

i paid a lot of attention to the apparent events when richard was coldcocked by the rest of the gentry there and think i understand why he was waylayed.? he made a number of moves that threatened to improve the lot of the pissant class over there at the expense of the silk pillow bunch, and that didn’t go over at all well with them.? henry tudor had no trouble sweet-talking all manner of gentry into double-crossing richard and might even have gotten enough inroads into the upper crust to have those nephews snuffed while richard would get the blame.

why mention that now?? same crap is going on over there right now, and i don’t hear squat from the people there who are being subjugated even more tightly than they had been.

like with ours, the uk easy money bunch seems more worried by far by the general populace than outside forces, and any means to bring the people to their knees in shackles is fair game — here and there.

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