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

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