State Secrecy in the Age of Revolutions

By Katlyn Carter

A decade before becoming a revolutionary, Honoré Grabiel Riqueti, the Comte de Mirabeau penned a scathing critique of the French monarchy, its prisons, and lettres de cachet, the sealed royal orders sometimes used to lock people in them. “After such a large number of experiences,” he wrote in 1778, “we should finally be convinced that these official words THE SECRET OF THE STATE, THE SECRET OF THE ADMINISTRATION, applied to the internal and domestic government of nations, are suited to covering all kind of robberies and the most atrocious attacks against even the king.” [1]

As revolutionaries reconsidered what it meant for a government to be representative in the late eighteenth century, they simultaneously questioned the character of state secrecy. This was no coincidence. In fact, debates about the place of secrecy in government were central to one of the biggest puzzles of the Age of Revolutions — how to make representative government a legitimate and stable form of political authority. Deciding which aspects of governance to keep secret versus which to perform publicly was tantamount to defining what it meant to represent the people.

In early modern Europe, most political activity was, at least officially, considered a secret of state. Politics writ-large was treated as the king’s secret in France and, in England, Parliament was formally closed to the public. But this began to change in the second half of the eighteenth century as writers like Mirabeau questioned what governments were hiding and whether they should keep secrets at all. Increasingly associated with despotism, state secrecy drew suspicion across the Atlantic World. Meanwhile, publicity or transparency was increasingly being proposed as a remedy to correct the tyrannical tendencies of states.

This concern with state secrecy was immediately linked to arising ambiguities over the meaning and legitimacy of political representation. By the 1770s and 80s, not only was it increasingly unclear what could be kept secret in government; what it meant to represent the people was more uncertain than ever. In France, the idea that the king represented the nation was increasingly called into question, creating an opening for other possible institutions to claim legitimacy as representatives of the people—from the parlement law courts to the Estates General. In the Anglophone world, radical reformers and American colonists challenged the notion that Parliament represented the people by pointing out that large segments of the population did not vote and did not have their interests reflected in the body. “No taxation without representation” spoke to this political angst. As revolutions broke out in North America and then in France, new institutions were set up as explicitly representative ones, but underlying uncertainties lingered. What did it mean to represent the nation? What gave political representatives legitimacy as voices of the people?

Disagreements about what should be publicly visible versus what could be legitimately kept secret in government mapped directly onto debates about what made representative politics legitimate. If political representation meant having a body of elected officials who would reflect public opinion in their decisions, the political process necessarily had to be carried out in public view. As Jacques-Pierre Brissot put it in the prospectus for a proposed periodical in 1789: “This precious publicity will be the only way to make known to the nation its defenders and to stop betrayal by its enemies.” [2] To ensure their representatives maintained legitimacy as voices of the people, the population needed to know what they were deciding and how. A segment of the American population often referred to as Antifederalists, due to their opposition to the Federal Constitution in 1787-88, essentially agreed with Brissot, characterizing political representation as a process that required transparency in order to be considered legitimate.

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Assemblée nationale : Constituée à Versailles le 17 juin 1789, six Semaines après l’ouverture des Etats Généraux ; Dédiée aux Femmes Patriotes,” estampe, dessiné par Borel et gravé par N. Ponce, Paris, 1790. BNF, Gallica.

As the delegates to the Estates General in France declared themselves a sovereign legislature in 1789, they professed their commitment to deliberating in public view as a central component of their legitimacy. In response to a suggestion in late May that members of the public be removed from the assembly hall, radical Third-Estate Deputy Constantin-François de Chasseboeuf de Volney captured the mood of many, declaring:

I cannot respect he who seeks to hide himself in the shadows, the fullness of day is made to shed light on the truth, and I am proud to think like the philosopher who said that all his actions never had anything secret and that he wished that his house was made of glass. [3]

Not only did deputies like Volney rhetorically vaunt the value of publicity to the political process, they established procedures guaranteeing open meeting chambers; designed systems to print, distribute, and translate their decrees; maintained access for journalists and allowed them to print records of legislative debates; and set up a process whereby petitioners could speak to them directly during their meetings.  Adhering to transparent decision-making was at the heart of what was to make them legitimate representatives of the people; secrecy simply had no place in a representative regime.

Scene_at_the_Signing_of_the_Constitution_of_the_United_States
Howard Chandler Christy, Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, 1940.

But there was another vision of political representation that did not jibe so well with the absolute publicity of politics—a vision that many of the French deputies themselves were beginning to articulate as they discarded their so-called “binding mandates” and then claimed to speak for the nation as a whole. This alternative understanding of representative politics, which was also elaborated by the Federalist framers of the American Constitution, was that the government derived its legitimacy as representative from the consent of the people, but not from a constant consultation of popular opinion. If representing the people merely meant being elected by them and then determining their best interest at a remove from popular pressure, then secrecy was not only appropriate, it was necessary to ensuring the integrity of the deliberative process. As Washington put it in a letter to James Madison shortly after the Constitutional Convention had disbanded, in October of 1787: “Not everyone has opportunities to peep behind the curtain; and as the multitude often judge from externals, the appearance of unanimity in that body, on this occasion, will be of great importance.” [4] Washington didn’t specify whether he thought limiting transparency was good or bad, only that he thought it was useful to be able to craft the public’s perception of what had happened in the Confederation Congress when it was presented with the Constitution. It was only in voting that the people were to exercise their sovereignty by either affirming or rejecting their representatives. The federal government of the United States would largely adopt procedures aligned with this vision of representative government, using secrecy strategically to foster the stability of the regime, even when public opinion seemed at odds with its decisions.

Like many aspects of the Age of Revolutions, these puzzles weren’t definitively solved in the eighteenth century. We still grapple today with which parts of the political process should be transparent and which can safely be kept secret. And like those who came before us, our answers often come down to what we think a representative government ought to do. Should it constantly consult and reflect public opinion, or determine the best interest of the population based on deliberation that is insulated from popular input?

Katlyn Carter is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, where she is currently a Graduate Prize Fellow at the University Center for Human Values. Her research focuses on political culture and state secrecy in the eighteenth-century Atlantic World. You can reach her at kmcarter@princeton.edu

Title image: Page from the Culper Spy Ring Code. Used by George Washington. 1778.

[1] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d’état : ouvrage posthume, composé en 1778 (Hambourg : s.n., 1782), 106.

[2] Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, Le Patriote François: journal libre, impartial et national (Paris: Buisson, May 6, 1789), 5.

[3] Archives Parlementaires de 1787 a 1860, Tome VIII: Du 5 Mai au 15 Septembre, 1789 (Paris: Société d’Imprimerie et Libraire Administratives, 1884), 55.

[4] George Washington to James Madison, October 10, 1787. In The Papers of James Madison, Volume 10: 27 May 1787-3 March 1788, ed. J.C.A. Stagg (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2010), 189.

Recommended Readings

Paul Friedland. Political Actors: Representative Bodies & Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Daniel Jütte. Age of Secrecy: Jews, Christians, and the Economy of Secrets, 1400-1800. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2015.

Trish Loughran. The republic in print: print culture in the age of U.S. nation building, 1770-1870. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

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