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Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Leak That Made America

Well, no surprises in the Iowa caucus.  Gingrich, Bachman and Perry beat themselves into irrelevance and the voters remain undecided whether their priority is to be impoverished by Wall Street wh*res like Mitt Romney or burned at the stake by puritanical simpletons like Rick Santorum.  If the Democratic Party's Achilles heel is a lack of conviction and willingness to fight for its stated beliefs, the Republican Party's fatal flaw is its love of stupidity.

But that's just us, the electorate.  Supposedly the great education and ethical commitment of professional functionaries should mitigate against the creeping culture of mediocrity that's overtaken American culture in the last 50 years.  Does it really, though?  For example, do the judges deciding the fate of Bradley Manning have clue # 1 that their nation's very founding legal principle owes its existence to a state department leak in 1773?  Do any of them remember the Hutchinson Letters Affair?

Benjamin Franklin
Bradley Manning

On the face of it, the late 18th century should, by all rights, have represented a gratifying period of peace and contentment within the British Empire.  The vicious civil wars that marked the 17th century had finally been resolved with the decisive defeat of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745.  A remarkably stable political settlement had been achieved which conclusively destroyed the arbitrary power of absolute monarchy. 

True, it did not satisfy or even address many of the concerns of the age's most idealistic revolutionaries.  And that was exactly why the settlement proved so durable; truly radical  destabilizing forces had been violently eradicated and the remaining disparate threads of British society had been assimilated into an ambiguous consensus.  Oliver Cromwell brutally suppressed John Lillburn and his populist Leveller movement.  Cromwell ensured that no one need concern themselves with Ireland's welfare for another two centuries by murdering one quarter of that island's population in a bloody campaign of genocide and theft.  At home he quashed (seemingly) for all time the politically volatile mix of British Protestant sectarianism by triangulating a non-ideological sort of state Anglicanism that offered some degree of toleration to all non-Catholic denominations. 

Although Cromwell was, by virtue of his control over the military, king in all but name, he refused to assume such a provocative title publicly--providing the illusion if not the substance of representative government.  This belief in representative government became a core defining principle of national identities throughout the Anglophone world.

While the American colonies were generally founded as private commercial ventures with limited rights of self-government granted by crown charter, these odious restrictions were largely mitigated by several unique practical factors.  Owing to the extreme geographic isolation of these colonies from the mother country, the monarchy's domestic preoccupations and general satisfaction with the balance of trade in those earliest years, settlers were provided with a great deal of de facto local autonomy. 

Gradually these private charters were revoked and administration abrogated to the crown--a policy which did have some redeeming aspects.  If anything, this appeared to draw American colonists closer to the mother country than ever before.  Now they theoretically enjoyed direct right of appeal to the crown for the redress of grievances whereas before they were subject to the tyranny of self-interested, petty commercial tyrants.  Now they enjoyed the same right of appeal that all British subjects enjoyed--or so they thought.  Until 1763.

North America was a central theater of the French and Indian War, known as the Seven Years' War in Europe, which concluded in 1763.  While the treaty of Paris settled Britain as the uncontested European hegemon of the North American seaboard, and on the surface at least, seemed to resolve many of the colonists' most anxious worries about security and prospects for economic expansion while simultaneously making them a more integral part of the political part of the empire than ever before, the settlement which followed gradually clarified the deepening divergence of interests between locals and the mother country.

The resentments of American elites like George Washington over petty snubs from the haughty and incompetent behavior of British-born generals may provide fodder for interesting speculations about their personal psychological motivations, but they could be and were for a long time swept under the rug in the interest of the 'common good' and misplaced confidence in the benevolence of the monarch himself.  Over time, however, it became painfully clear that the monarch either could not, did not wish to, understand the sense of alienation engendered by its uneven division of the spoils of war.

Time and time again the crown signed off on policies that were seen as directly opposed to the interest of colonial Americans.  For a long time fly-by-night British-born speculators and military officers received promotional preferments and western land grants far in excess of their colonial-born comrades--each one a direct insult to the sacrifices endured by loyal colonists who lived and died on the front lines of the war.  And yet further sacrifices were demanded of the locals: George III's Proclamation of 1763 specifically forbade further colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains.  American economic opportunity was at the whim of the Hanoverian kings.

These sort of crony-relationships were really quite par-for-the-course for mercantilist colonial monarchies in the 18th century.  Mostly they had not yet developed professional civil services or progressive taxation schemes, so really there were few viable alternatives to pay for such massive war efforts.  Yet, it came as a profound shock to our naive colonial ancestors who believed so fervently in their natural-born rights as "Englishmen" and the paternal benevolence of the crown.

Suspicion and Unease
Eventually, the final betrayal would be the imposition of a series of tax schemes by the British parliament--a parliament in which the Americans had no direct representation.  This was a direct violation of the social contract which had created their identities as British subjects. 

The 17th century revolutions that had up-ended society and the long lasting settlement that finally quelled them, all balanced on the principle that the British persons could not be subject to arbitrary taxation without formal consent.  This was the cause for which Cromwell had killed Charles I and set off nearly a century of turmoil.  If this principle were abandoned, all bets were off and the American colonists could no longer consider themselves willing parties to the pragmatic Cromwellian settlement, but rather a species of private property to be used and abused at will; an unacceptable indignity.

Before 1773 this betrayal was seen more a vague yet insistent perception rather than a clear and indisputable fact.  More like a dull toothache than a gangrenous compound fracture. Public dissent until that time had been limited to a small cadre of professional troublemakers like Sam Adams in Boston.  He had been dismissed as a filthy congenital malcontent whose activities were limited to comical street theater, wonky manifestos and "committees of correspondence" with like-minded losers.  Of course he was angry--his father had been bankrupted in 1741 when the crown-appointed governor of Massachusetts used his insider influence to destroy the small, proto-credit union he'd established in 1739.  Povos will be povos; there will always be winners and losers in any system.  No need to pay them much mind.

But then Benjamin Franklin leaked the Hutchinson Letters.


Thomas Hutchinson was a Massachusetts native whose family had been prominent in the governance of the colony almost since its first founding.  Like Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, he studied at Harvard and was seen as a bit of a flip-flopper and regarded with suspicion by populists like Sam Adams.  At various points in his career, Hutchinson had both opposed and supported the Stamp Act, both acted as an advocate for Massachusetts residents in negotiations with the crown and ordered searches and seizures of private property to enforce controversial crown policies.  Hutchinson undermined the effectiveness of protest against policies he claimed to oppose though tepid, ineffectual political maneuvering.  He was part of the very small circle of royal patronage that profited from the very tax policies he publicly decried.  And between 1767 and 1772, while Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Hutchinson wrote some very, very stupid letters to a member of the Privy Council's Board of Trade, comparable to an office within the modern U.S. State Department.

Hutchinson had ordered British army units to quash demonstrations in Boston opposed to arbitrary crown actions.  During one of those demonstrations, soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing five civilians.  Hutchinson effectively weathered the short-term storm by managing a show trial where 6 of 8 soldiers were acquitted, partially on the basis that the victims were merely a " . . . motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs."[1]  The remaining two had their death sentences commuted from death to a "branding on the thumb".  Public reaction was largely limited to some small, desultory rhetorical protest.

However it did sharpen the focus of public suspicions of Hutchinson, and they were no further pleased to discover in 1772 that he'd accepted a royal salary of £1,500, independent of that granted by the colonial assembly.  So Benjamin Franklin was probably not surprised when he somehow acquired a series of letters written by Hutchinson and his brother-in-law to Thomas Whately, a British MP and member of the Board of Trade, explicitly suggesting a policy of gradually eliminating the colonists' liberties and approving dubious military interventions.  But he was certainly outraged.  Outraged enough to break with centuries of gentlemanly diplomatic protocol and send copies to Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts assembly, who published them in June 1773.


The contents of the letters were unambiguous.  Despite his public pieties and rhetorical espousal of American virtues and liberties, Hutchinson was colluding with the Privy Council to disenfranchise colonials and institute a police state to ease the working of the royal patronage network.  A complete account can be found in The Life of Thomas Hutchinson, Royal Governor of the Province of Massachusetts by James Kendall Hosmer, but here are some of the choicest comments from a letter dated 4th October 1768:

 " . . . . Many of the common people have been in a frenzy and talked of dying in defense of their liberties and have spoke and printed what is highly criminal, and too many of rank above the vulgar, and some in public posts, have countenanced and encouraged them until they increased so much in their numbers and opinion of their importance as to submit to government no further than they thought proper. . . ."

 " . . . . They met and spent a week, made themselves ridiculous, and then dissolved themselves after a message or two to the governor which he refused to receive; a petition to the King which I dare say their agent will never be allowed to present, and a result which they have published ill-natured and impudent. . . ."

". . . The government has so long been in the hands of the populace that it must come out of them by degrees . . . "

Americans had long suspected treachery and some, like Sam Adams, acted on their suspicions.  Others, maybe being more timid or conservative, bided their time.  But after Benjamin Franklin leaked these letters, everyone knew the duplicity of Hutchinson and the Board of Trade to be an actual fact.


From the publication of the Hutchinson Letters, the public furore in Massachusetts was continual until the end of the War of Independence.  It sparked a series of further demonstrations, like the November 1733 Tea Party, and repressive counter measures by the British government.  Franklin was dismissed from his post by the Board of Trade and additional troops were sent to Boston under General Thomas Gage.  Then came Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775.  You know the rest.  I hope.

These royal appointees were probably incapable of responding in any other manner, really.  The eighteenth century's expectations and conceptions of government were very rudimentary and minimal.  Like misguided libertarians of the 21st century, they believed private property to be society's central institution.  Wealth and privilege, to them, were the only criteria for enfranchisement as a practical matter of logistical operations rather than moral or ideological commitments to the citizenry.  Might makes right.

It's a part of America's founding mythology that this isn't so, however.  Our identity was forged in the totally improbable victory of a tiny, practically unarmed civilian underdog against the world's most powerful military machine, pooling our resources together as a united people to secure the common goal of American liberty.  Right makes might, in the long run at least.

Do you figure any of the judges at Manning's trial are aware of this?  Do they know that were it not for a leaker like Bradley Manning, their "ill-natured impudence" in assuming the authority to put a man on trial under the U.S. Constitution would have been regarded as an act of rebellion?


[1]  John Adams' speech at the trial.

1 comment:

  1. Very well-written and insightful piece, if you don't know your own history how can you make informed decisions? I doubt if this information would make any difference to the judges at Bradley Manning's trial... in order to do so it would require them to be impartial and free from commercial and political influence. The tyranny of the old empire that the U.S. rejected has been reborn and blossomed at home. Even CitiBank describes the U.S. as a plutocracy, a nation run for the benefit of an elite. There is no government by and for the people any more. It's still possible to have radical change and reject all this... the barrier to this is astonishing levels of ignorance, lack of engagement with the political process and a general sense of resigned resentment.
    All Bradley Manning has revealed is what is being done in the name of U.S. citizens and how others have reacted to that. It's an inconvenient truth, but still a truth. This is what is being done in your name people, is the messenger really the problem? That he's gay probably doesn't help right? I despair.