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.

16 Comments for this entry

  • QT says:

    If Benjamin Franklin truly understood how inflammatory these letters are, why wasn’t he more selective of the individuals he sent them to? I mean, pick a couple of people who have actually demonstrated the ability to keep a secret, for heaven’s sake. The way he went about it, he might as well have just projected the letters into the sky like a Batsignal.

  • Gadtly says:

    thx. great work.

  • Hendraka says:

    Thanks Harry. Very informative

  • Usula says:

    Thank you! :)

  • lora says:

    4 Julian Assange who is embarking on a new source protection platform

    Julian Assange is a hero who’s great!
    Spilling truth to all who won’t wait!
    He dreams that we all,
    Are saved from the fall!
    And man gets a key to GOD’s gate.

    Love and awe, Lora B

  • lora says:

    4 Bradley Manning
    Mr. Manning’s a brave man who dared
    To pass on the truth ‘cause he cared;
    Facts he let out!
    War’s purpose? In doubt!
    Now he should surely be spared!

    Love and awe, Lora B

  • Chana says:

    Isn’t it interesting how what seemed like a mistake – ie leaking the letters – could have been instrumental to creating such a pivotal event in history as the War of Independence? Great article.

  • The Jester says:

    I think that Assange is a total scumbag and I didn’t agree with the analogy you drawn with Benjamin Franklin, but I must admit I did enjoy the history lesson.

  • WL says:

    They guy’s a hero, but if the American’s get hold of Assange they have every intention of locking him up and throwing away the key.

  • Radley says:

    Thanks for the history lesson. Just shows you that there is nothing new in this mixed-up world.

  • gb says:

    I see that Assange’s appeal has failed. US authorities must be licking their chops, ready to pounce on him with an extradition order once he lands in Sweden.

  • Bornagaindem says:

    and this is even more relevant now that snowden has to hide in Russia from the american government.

    BTW – QT don’t you get that Franklin really didn’t mind that the letters were leaked? That was a feature not a drawback.

  • MixedNuts says:

    This inaccurately portrays the situation of the constitutional struggle between Britain’s American colonies and the British government at this time. The American colonists were not anti-Crown yet. That actually did not occur until after hostilities had opened. The American colonists at the point of these leaks were anti-Parliament. They saw the House of Commons as attempting to change the nature of the relationship between Parliament and the colonies by legislating on the internal affairs of the colonies, and thus Parliament was the butt of their rage and not the King (royally appointed officials could be the exception, however, like Hutchinson mentioning that he might try to destroy the Massachusetts colonists’ ancient customs. However, Parliament did do that later that same year with the Coercive Acts).
    In regards to the British government’s response to the leaker, Benjamin Franklin, they probably understood that actually punishing him somehow would make the situation in the colonies much worse than they needed to be. While imprisoning Franklin would not have set off an independence movement like the one seen in 1776, it may have in the short term set off riots and in the long term strengthen the vigor in which American colonists resisted Parliamentary authority over their lives by making Franklin a martyr.

    Forgive me if I’m wrong, but people do not hold beliefs about privacy and government accountability as nearly as strongly as did eighteenth century Massachusetts colonists held their beliefs about local self government. To the colonists, local-self government (which Hutchinson hinted at taking away as even being an option) was both an ancient custom of theirs and linked to the old Puritan ethic of the importance of community involvement. By attacking their right to self government, Parliament or any authority figure was attacking their right to their way of life, their old constitutional relationship with Britain (over the 150 year period prior to this crisis Britain and the American colonies had made it the norm for the colonies to be able to govern themselves while Britain handles external/over seas affairs), and essentially their religious beliefs. That last part is essential: people today do not view their right to privacy and government accountability with the same strength that the colonists held on to their right to self government. If they did, the cases of Manning and Assange would have set off huge riots in the countries involved and resistance to such government acts would have and would still be taken on a large scale. Thus, I do not see this analogy as being truly genuine, as the situations are too different. I mean, governments today know that nobody really cares that much about the work of Assange and Manning, so they can do whatever they want to them and not care about blow back (as sad as that is). That was not the case with the British government during the Letters Affair and the constitutional crisis of the 1760s-70s, as there was also already huge signs of instability in their society that are also not present today.

  • Jesse says:

    Her name is Chelsea.

  • Tory says:

    This comparison is as idiotic as you can get. Franklin realized Hutchinson was stabbing America in the back and deliberately misled Parliament. Unlike this Assange pansy, he didn’t steal secret documents from England and publish them. You even note that Franklin said – don’t publish them. Franklin didn’t want to go to war with England, but the policies put in place at the urging of Hutchinson did this very thing.

    Aside from the privacy matters addressed in an earlier comment, Hutchinson words were considered by the people of Massachusetts (and beyond) to be the height of dishonor, something that self-absorbed clowns like Assange cannot comprehend.

    For an allegedly educated person, you are throwing out pure garbage. It’s one thing to support information theft, it’s another to equate current examples with completely unrelated events from more than two centuries ago.

  • drush76 says:

    I’m not surprised that some would make excuses for Franklin and continue to damn Assange and Manning. Then again, hypocrisy has always been a strong human trait.

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