All Over Again
Benjamin Franklin Was America's First Political Leaker
As leak accusations rock the White House, Anthony Scaramucci and Donald Trump should know that American politics' first major leak came at a formative moment—by a founding father.
Anthony Scaramucci spent the bulk of his first week as White House communications director railing against alleged leakers large and small. Or, rather, more than railing: outright threatening, telling The New Yorker,“What I want to do is I want to fucking kill all the leakers.”
He later claimed on CNN that foreign policy leaks are so “treasonous,” that “people would have been hung” for them 150 years ago.
But few in this maelstrom of distraction have mentioned the fact that leaks played an essential role in the American revolution, turning the tide toward the Patriots and away from the crown, setting the stage for the final, fateful rebellion. The Hutchinson Letter Affair was a scandal that ended two British officials’ careers and led to the public censure of the central leaker, none other than Benjamin Franklin.
The story begins with the June 1772 death of former British MP Thomas Whately. A bigwig among the powdered-wig set, Whately was privy to loads of private information, most of it in the form of letters from equally powerful stalwarts.
Any number of people on either side of the Atlantic would have loved to get their hands on that treasure trove, but only two people had access: Whately’s brother, William, and his friend, John Temple, the American-born diplomat who asked William’s permission to collect any letters he himself had written to the late, elder Whately.
Though they both denied any part in the letters’ later release, one of them, most likely Temple, sent a number of them — thirteen to twenty, depending on the retelling — to Benjamin Franklin, a postmaster general and colonial agent representing Pennsylvania in London.
Within that package were missives sent to Whately from Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Andrew Oliver, the colony’s Lieutenant Governor and Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, in 1768 and 1769, as colonists rioted against unjust and punitive Parliamentary taxes.
Hutchinson and Oliver’s remarks weren’t terrible by today’s standards. There were no allusions to collusion with Prussia or anything. But Franklin found the letters to be unsettling none-the-less, especially Oliver’s suggestion that all American civic leaders be replaced with English-born allies, men who wouldn’t be so torn between the king and their own American interests.
“If officers are not in some measure independent of the people (for it is difficult to serve two masters) they will sometimes have a hard struggle between duty to the crown and a regard to self,” he wrote from Boston on May 7, 1767.
More officers were integral to maintaining the King’s authority. This was hardly different from what the unabashedly loyal Oliver said in public, but nevertheless he concluded, “Though I have wrote [sic] nothing but what is in my conscience… the many prejudices I have to combat with, may render it unfit [if] it should be made public.”
While Hutchinson’s letters were tame in comparison, they diverged sharply from his amiable, accommodating public persona.
This is particularly evident in a January 1769 note suggesting Parliament limit American liberties: “If no measures shall have been taken to secure [colonial] dependence [sic], or nothing more than some declaratory acts or resolves, it is all over with us…. There must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties…. I wish for the good of the colony when I wish to see some further restraint of liberty rather than the connection with the parent state should be broken, for I am sure such a breach would prove the ruin of the colony.”
Unsettled by the contents, and secretly hoping they would show the Crown wasn’t all bad, but was just receiving bad advice, Franklin sent the letters to Massachusetts Bay Speaker and Patriot Thomas Cushing that December with explicit instructions to keep them hush-hush.
Cushing didn’t. He shared them with future beer-brand and then-clerk for the Massachusetts Assembly, Samuel Adams, who in turn read them to the Massachusetts Assembly, which subsequently opened an official investigation.
Adams wanted to move things along, so hit up newspaper man and famed propagandist John Hancock to spread words of the letters’ existence, a favor he was more than happy to oblige and set to work penning a report that the Massachusetts Assembly deemed the letters a danger to its government. Other papers joined in, too, fanning the flames as only the press can.
“Very important matters will soon transpire, which will bring many dark things to light — gain many proselytes to the cause of freedom — make tyrannical rulers tremble,” wrote the Massachusetts Spy, sounding very much like a certain Twitterer-in-chief.
By June 16th the House had declared both Hutchinson and Oliver unfit for their duties and by June 23rd it passed a petition to the king demanding both men’s ousters.
It wasn’t long after that Adams slipped the letters themselves to the press, making the private correspondence oh-so public. The people were not impressed: by the long, tense summer’s end they were burning Hutchinson and Oliver in effigy. Paul Revere even created a political cartoon showing Death itself skewering Hutchinson. It was all pretty ugly.
Meanwhile, back in London, speculation ran rampant over who leaked the letters, with William Whately and John Temple each pointing the finger at the other. Things got so acrimonious that Temple demanded a duel. Whately agreed and met him at dawn on a chilly December morning; pistols were drawn, promptly misfired and replaced with whipping swords, ending with Whately seriously wounded.
It wasn’t mortal, though, and a rematch would be scheduled posthaste, once Whately recovered. Aghast at his actions' bloody consequences, and horrified at thought of more, Franklin confessed.
“I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question,” he wrote in the London Chronicle over the Christmas holiday. He did this, Franklin said, because Hutchinson and Oliver were public figures remarking on public business. Their remarks were therefore fair game. “They were written by public officers to persons in public station, on public affairs, and intended to procure public measures… Their tendency was to incense the Mother Country against her Colonies.”
The Parliamentary powers-that-be were none-too-pleased, to say the least, and Franklin that January found himself on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing in a place called the Cockpit, a Parliamentary theater where Henry VIII formerly held cockfights.
Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn went for the jugular straight away: he accused Franklin of planting the letters to usurp Hutchinson’s seat; claimed his indiscretion with private letters — “Property…. as sacred and as precious to gentlemen of integrity, as their family plate or jewels.” — had “forfeited all the respect of societies and of men;” and Wedderburn even went so far as to accuse Franklin of thinking himself above the law.
“Dr. Franklin's mind may have been so possessed with the idea of a Great American Republic, that he may easily slide into the language of the minister of a foreign independent state,” he said. Franklin believed himself “not amenable to the laws of the country where he resides.”
It was, said one witness, “a torrent of virulent abuse.” And, for added effect, Wedderburn slammed a table throughout, creating successive booms of which English jurist Jeremy Bentham later described as “thunder.” “The ear was stunned at every blow.”
Yet Franklin remained silent, and when Wedderburn was finally ready to question the American directly, Franklin simply refused. Or, as court records put it, Franklin “declared by his counsel that he did not choose to be examined,” It was a bold move, but it did nothing to save his hide.
While Parliament rejected the Massachusetts Assembly’s “vexatious” petition to boot Hutchinson, it did let Oliver and Hutchinson voluntarily recall themselves, leaving them a shred of dignity.
Franklin, however, wasn’t afforded that luxury. Despite his long and professed loyalty to the crown, Franklin was stripped of both his administrative duties and his deputy postmaster general position. Though Franklin stuck about London for a few more months, relations there had hit a nadir and he returned to the soon-to-be States in March.
Franklin was no doubt hurt and embarrassed by the Hutchinson Letter Affair, but that was a small price to pay in the grand scheme, because his leak and the subsequent press coverage pulled momentum toward the patriots, setting the tone for the American colonies’ final days as English dependents.
Any illusion of English protection or even respect for their far-off cousins were dashed. There was no turning back. War was on the horizon, and it was brought about in part by a leak that Trump and company would decry as, to use the president’s shorthand, “so illegal!”
Granted, not all leaks are in the public good — see: Valerie Plame — but it’s without question that leaks play an essential role in our civil society, and that they have from the very beginning. If only our President and his leak-loathing allies knew their American history.