Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A public figure receives a cache of leaked government documents whose contents is so explosive that it will embarrass the government, incite insurgents and encourage them to attack government officials. It could even bring on a war. The person leaking these documents is quickly identified and dealt with by authorities, but more of this later.
Who could I be writing about? Perhaps Bradley Manning, the US army soldier, who was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on suspicion of having passed on restricted material? Or it could be Julian Assange, who published over 250,000 on his website Wikileaks of US diplomatic cables, the largest set of restricted documents ever leaked to the public? And when might I be writing about? Possibly April 5, 2010, when WikiLeaks posted on its site the Iraq video, titled ‘Collateral Murder’. It showed U.S. Army Apache helicopter air strikes in an eastern district of Baghdad in July 2007, which killed two staffers for Reuters and a dozen or more others. This was followed by a flood of classified documents from diplomatic and military sources that has rocked the US Administration, embarrassed it allies and encouraged the enemies of the US. And finally, what about holding those responsible for the leaks to account? Well, Bradley Manning is in a military jail awaiting court-martial proceedings. He faces 22 charges including “aiding the enemy,” which can carry the death sentence. Julian Assange is holed up in England, fighting the Swedish government, who are trying to extradite him so they question him about a sexual assault. At the same time, the US government has convened a Grand Jury, which has met in secret to determine whether the leaks have breached the Espionage Act of 1917. There is every reason to believe that Grand Jury has prepared charges against Assange, and the US government will start extradition proceeding as soon as he arrives in Sweden, where they judge they have a better chance of success than in Great Britain. If convinced, Assange could be executed.
The case I’m referring to has nothing to do with WikiLeaks, Assange or Manning. Called the Hutchinson Letters Affair, it began in December, 1772 when Benjamin Franklin, who was in England at the time, anonymously received a packet of thirteen letters. They were reports by Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to Thomas Whately, a leading member of the British government. 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.
Understanding the inflammatory nature of these letters, Franklin circulated the letters to his American friends and colleagues but on the condition that they not be published. Clearly in the public interest, at least from the point-of-view of American revolutionaries, the letters were published, in defiance of Franklin’s request, in the Boston Gazette in June of 1773.
As you can imagine, the patriotic citizens of Boston were furious, and in May 1774 Hutchinson fled the colony back to England before he could be tarred and feathered. As the American colonies were on the edge of rebelling against the authority of the Crown, this could easily have triggered a revolution, and while it didn’t, it certainly provided the insurgents with ammunition in their fight against England.
Having been severely embarrassed and having had its interests in the American colonies compromised, the British government set out to discover who leaked the letters. In December of 1773, three men were charged, two of whom fought a duel over the matter and were preparing to do so again. As it turned out, they had nothing to do with the Hutchinson letters, and in a letter to the London Chronicle, Franklin confessed: “Finding that two gentlemen have been unfortunately engaged in a duel, about a transaction and its circumstance of which both are totally ignorant and innocent, I think it incumbent on me to declare (for the prevention of farther mischief, as far as such a declaration may contribute to prevent it) that I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question.” However, he refused to say who gave him the letters
Obviously more benign than the US government of the twenty-first century, Benjamin Franklin was not locked up and held in solitary confinement, as was the case with Manning Bradley, or threatened by charges of espionage, like Assange.
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.