The Atlantic

When Leaking Is an Act of Patriotism

In 1800, a newspaper report incensed supporters of President John Adams—and sparked the nation’s first major leak investigation.
Source: Library of Congress

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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
The Defense Department Is Leaderless Again
Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be secretary of defense after reports of a harrowing family situation.
The Atlantic5 min readPolitics
Egypt’s Only Democratic Leader Helped Kill Its Democracy
In June 2012, I stood with hundreds of thousands of Mohamed Morsi’s supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where they prayed that the Egyptian military, still powerful behind the scenes, would allow a fair ballot count. Independent tallies suggested th
The Atlantic2 min readPolitics
The Atlantic Politics & Policy Daily: Pentagone
Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration for secretary of defense. Plus: President Trump is formally announcing his reelection campaign today in—wait, what?