America Was Founded on a Media Leak

Whether or not you think it’s right that information from our government gets leaked to the media, it might be helpful to remember that our country was all but founded on one.

In 1773, passions were running high in Britain’s American colonies. Various taxes and increased violence like the Boston Massacre had incensed many who may not have bought into prior, more esoteric arguments about rights. Many in government were evermore inspired to keep order, whether because of their beliefs concerning the Crown’s rights, or due to simpler, more base needs of self-preservation.

Thomas Hutchinson was the governor of Massachusetts, where much of the resentment had become public. As an avowed Loyalist, he gave a speech early that year in which he argued for continued subservience to London.

He had the misfortune of pissing off Sam Adams, perhaps the most effective propagandist of his age.

Adams conspired with Benjamin Franklin, who was living in London at the time and had somehow come into possession of letters Hutchinson had written to Thomas Whatley, a retired English MP who’d died the year prior. The letters were full of condescension and insult toward the people Hutchinson nominally represented, calling his opponents “ignorant” and their thinking a “frenzy.”

Worse, he stated that he believed “an abridgment of what are called English liberties” would be required “for the peace and good order of the colonies,” and went on to say he didn’t think such actions would be temporary, but questioned if providing equal rights were even possible at all.

Adams leaked the letters to the media.

The response was swift, including the House of Representatives petitioning (unsuccessfully) to have Hutchinson removed from office. More importantly, it provided both an emotional component to the argument against the Crown, and the apparent proof of betrayal if not outright conspiracy of colonial government to impede the will of the people.

As awareness of the just-passed Tea Act of 1773 spread slowly up and down the Atlantic Coast, the various opponents of British rule coalesced and began to coordinate their organizations and actions. By the time of the Boston Tea Party in December — Hutchinson was one of the buyers of the cargo dumped in the harbor, and would resign and move to London soon thereafter — the resistance had morphed into a rebellion.

Some historians, including Robert Middlekauff in his book “The Glorious Cause,” see the leak of Hutchinson’s letters as the galvanizing moment in the march toward American independence.

Leaking information to the media helped found our country, so maybe it might play a useful role in helping preserve it, too?

[This essay originally appeared at Linkedin]