The Classified Info Uproar Shows Americans' Distrust of SecrecyRoundup
tags: George Washington, Joe Biden, constitutional convention, Classified Information, secrecy
Katlyn Marie Carter is an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. Her book, Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions, will be out later this year with Yale University Press.
President Biden finds himself in hot water after a number of classified documents surfaced first at the Penn Biden Center and then at his home in Wilmington. These revelations complicate the narrative surrounding a mass of classified files recovered by federal agents from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence last year after he refused repeated requests and a subpoena to return them.
After records were also found at former vice president Mike Pence’s Indiana home, the National Archives asked former officials to ensure that they hadn’t “inadvertently” packed away presidential papers, confidential or otherwise.
Despite their very meaningful differences, these cases of mishandled classified material have ignited a political firestorm. Why do we care so much where these secrets ended up?
For one, these incidents remind us that the government keeps a lot of secrets — something Americans have been uneasy with dating to the founding. This suspicion of secrecy is why the way in which we handle classified material matters — especially if American leaders want to maintain trust in our democracy.
As modern republics were born in the late 18th century, secrecy was widely discredited as a vestige of monarchy and tool of tyranny — a way to subvert the will of the people, skirt accountability and advance the personal prerogatives of monarchs over the interests of nations.
In this climate, Thomas Jefferson lamented the fact that the Constitutional Convention had held its meetings behind closed doors in 1787. Writing to John Adams shortly before the convention disbanded, Jefferson declared that he was “sorry they began their deliberations by so abominable a precedent as that of tying up the tongues of their members.” Nothing, he went on, could justify the framers’ decision to meet in secret, “but the innocence of their intentions, and ignorance of the value of public discussions.” As the ratification debates got underway, many pointed to the secrecy surrounding the convention’s proceedings as cause for concern.
The official records of this momentous closed-door meeting, it should be noted, were packed up and sent home with George Washington. The country’s first president spent his ensuing term in office studiously safeguarding the executive’s prerogative to use secrecy while trying to tamp down accusations that he was deploying it to subvert the will of the people.
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