Sunday, July 4, 2010

Government Secrecy, Andrew Jackson Style

Here’s a dose of perspective on government secrecy for this July 4th. I don’t mean to suggest that today our government can be as open as it was in Andrew Jackson’s (or Lincoln’s) time, but the following provides some perspective on how much the openness of our American government has decreased over the course of the past 150 years. To be sure, we’ve added some improvements, like the Freedom of Information Act, but, as we saw during the Bush administration, the various organs of our government have, or can take, far too much leeway in their interpretations of their obligations under that act. And, more generally speaking, because an informed electorate is critical to the success of a democracy, the less an electorate knows about the activities of its government, the less durable their democracy becomes.

From Secrecy by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pp. 82-83:

Openness in deliberation and not least in diplomacy came to be seen as something of a democratic virtue, even an aspect of [American] national character. In 1860, one of Andrew Jackson’s early biographers reported an anecdote that cast the general as the very embodiment of this virtue. When Jackson was told that one Augustus, a servant with the run of the White House, might be smuggling presidential papers to the general’s opponents, Jackson responded:

“They are welcome, sir, to anything they can get out of my papers. They will find there, among other things, false grammar and bad spelling; but they are welcome to it all, grammar and spelling included. Let them make the most of it. Our government, sir, is founded upon the intelligence of the people; it has no other basis; upon their capacity to arrive at right conclusions in regard to measures and in regard to men; and I am not afraid of their failing to do so from any use that can be made of any thing that can be got out of my papers.”

Apocryphal or not, the anecdote bespeaks what appears to have been a widely shared sentiment. Then with the onset of the Civil War we observe the surely unprecedented notion of openness as an instrument of foreign policy. On December 3,1861, at the beginning of the second session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, Abraham Lincoln accompanied his State of the Union message with 410 pages, all promptly printed, of dispatches to American ministers abroad. The dispatches dealt with the Confederate states’ efforts to obtain recognition from foreign powers, notably Spain, France, and Great Britain. It was a fateful enterprise in which assertive openness was considered the most effective policy, and there is reason to judge that this proved to be the case. Openness communicated our threats as well as our entreaties, and it did so, in the case of Britain, not only to Whitehall but also to an increasingly literate and volatile public. The United States was dealing with insurrection at home; did Her Majesty’s Government, did the British people consider that this same misfortune might befall England, or Ireland?

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