An administration in turmoil. A president sometimes “absolutely out of his senses.” Panic over foreign terror; a lurch toward war; rumors of immigrant roundups; foreign meddling in American politics. Fear and despair over the American Republic, once seemingly favored of Heaven, now teetering on the verge of dictatorship or chaos.
The year: 1800.
The case: America’s first great leak investigation.
President Donald Trump claims public concern about possible Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election is a “ruse” concocted by Democrats smarting over their defeat in the election last year. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” he tweeted February 15. “Very un-American!”
But is it? Consider the case of William Duane, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora. Even by the rough-and-tumble standards of 18th-century American journalism, both the editor and the paper were stunningly partisan. They vociferously supported Vice President Thomas Jefferson and his nascent Democratic Republican Party, and conducted an all-out verbal onslaught on Jefferson’s foe, “His Rotundity” President John Adams. The Jeffersonians had been the subject of a two-year campaign of legal intimidation by the administration of John Adams and the Federalist Party. In 1798, the Federalists had rammed through Congress the Sedition Act. Under its terms, pro-Jefferson editors could be—and had been—jailed for printing any matter critical of the president or the Congress, “to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States.” (The law pointedly excluded the vice president from its coverage; Jefferson could be, and was, attacked freely by the Federalist press.)