The History of Transparency — Part 1: Opening the Channels of Information to the People in the 18th Century


Last week, my colleague John Wonderlich spoke on a panel about the nature of the Open Government Directive with other transparency leaders inside and outside of government. John commented that transparency needs a lasting structure in government so that it doesn’t become a fad, a la breakdancing in the 80s. The White House’s Norm Eisen responded that transparency would not be a fad and that “the project that the president is taking on is really a 17th century project that dates back to the founding of our democracy, which is a government for and by the people.” Eisen is absolutely correct that the ideology of transparency traces its roots back to the founding of the Republic. There is a direct line that runs from the opening of the House of Representatives to the current transparency efforts that Sunlight and others are currently pursuing. This post is the beginning in a series looking at the history of transparency in the American federal government. (Much of this information is adapted from this previous project.)

“However firmly liberty may be established in any country, it cannot long subsist if the channels of information be stopped,” Massachusetts Senator Elbridge Gerry stated in his fierce defense of providing federal subsidies to newspaper postal distribution in 1792. Early on in the founding of the United States lawmakers recognized and debated the importance of maintaining an informed citizenry. In the debate where Gerry so strongly defended the importance of information flow Congress wound up adopting a policy to subsidize the postal delivery of newspapers to keep the public informed of the workings of their government.

During the same debate over postal policy, James Madison stated, “In such an one [government] as ours, where members are so far removed from the eye of their constituents, an easy and prompt circulation of public proceedings is peculiarly essential.”

In the small republic of the late-18th century, American politicians were seriously concerned with keeping their constituents directly informed of what transpired in the nation’s capitol. Similarly, people were more than interested in obtaining information to express their opinions. The societal shifts that occurred in post-revolutionary America were an early precursor of the types of changes enabled by 21st century mass communications technology. Where we now have the means to express our opinions in almost instantaneous fashion that circumvents the old paths of discourse, ordinary people in the late-18th century all of a sudden found out that the barriers preventing them from expressing opinions at all no longer existed.

This began with the liberation of the people from a system of royalty, aristocracy and gentry. As Paul Starr paraphrases James Madison in The Creation of the Media, “liberty granted power in America.” That was power to the middle and lower classes who now, due to the liberty granted them, could voice their opinions on anything, including deriding the upper classes. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution Gordon Wood writes, “In contrast to pre-revolutionary America, the society of the early Republic had thousands upon thousands of obscure ordinary people participating in the creation of this public opinion.” Opinions crave for information.

Starr explains,

“Republican ideology held up a new standard of good conduct: The responsible citizen was informed and kept up with the times. Self-government, in other words, generated greater demand for information, particularly for news and newspapers. … [B]y legitimating the idea that ordinary people could govern themselves, the Revolution dignified their right to speak up—literally, without self-consciously bending and averting their eyes while addressing people of higher status.”

And policy-makers at the time took this revolution in public interaction to heart. The Post Office Act of 1792, and the reenactment of this as permanent policy in 1794, was intended to provide low-cost to entry for newspapers to reach people throughout the country. Similar policies were enacted to open up the work of the Congress to the public.

The House of Representatives opened their doors on the first day of their first session. As the only body then to have representatives directly elected by the people this openness policy seemed the perfect way to express the closeness of the body to the voting public. Rep. Alexander White of Virgina later wrote in his diary, “The pleasure which our open Doors, and the knowledge of our Debate obtained by the means, has given the People, can hardly be conceived.”

The Senate, however, remained obstinate and cloaked in aristocratic pretensions. Upon establishing itself, the Senate refused to open their doors, mirroring the policy of both the Roman Senate and the Constitutional Congress. This did not sit well with the newly liberated people of the country, particularly those organizing in Democratic-Republican clubs throughout the land. Between 1789 and 1791, the Virginia Assembly, the Maryland House of Delegates, the Pennsylvania Senate and the North Carolina Legislature all debated resolutions demanding the Senate doors be opened. During that same period of time, two attempts to pass legislation opening Senate doors failed by wide margins on the Senate floor.

Ultimately, it would take a massive press campaign, led by journalist Philip Freneau, before the doors of the Senate would swing open to the public.

In 1791, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Rep. James Madison recruited Freneau, a classmate of Madison at Princeton University, to head the anti-Federalist, pro-Republican newspaper, the National Gazette. Freneau immediately went to work covering the daily workings of Congress, writing that the paper would regularly publish a “brief history of the Debates and Proceedings of the Supreme Legislature of the United States.” Freneau’s decision to publish the records of Congress led him into direct confrontation with the Senate over their closed door policies. For nearly three years, and sparking two failed attempts to open Senate doors, Freneau railed against the “aristocratic junto,” writing, “Secrecy is necessary to design and a masque to treachery; honesty shrinks not from the public eye.” Facing financial troubles due to his unpopular support of a much disliked French foreign minister and the yellow fever epidemic that ran through Philadelphia, Freneau shuttered the National Gazette on October 27, 1793.

The efforts by Freneau, Madison and Jefferson to open the Senate’s doors were both principled and political. These three, along with other legislators and printers, shared a starkly differing perspective on the direction that the United States should pursue. To them the Federalists were tyrannical, cloaked in secret societies and interested in crowning a king, not a president. The Senate represented these aristocratic pretensions and became an easy target for the rapidly organizing opposition to the Federalists in the communities of artisans, small businessmen and farmers. Just as many of the fights over procedure and openness today seem to be pursued out of partisan pique, this effort sought to discredit the Federalists and enforce the notion of their elitism.

At the outset of the 1794 Senate session, senators were forced to face their closed-door policy after the Federalists contested the seating of Sen. Albert Gallatin, born in Switzerland, for failing to meet the Senate’s residency requirement. Supporters of an open door policy used the incident to advocate for temporarily opening the doors for the duration of the hearings of Gallatin’s eligibility. As Gallatin was elected by the Pennsylvania Legislature, the Senate was put in a situation whereby they could be issuing a secret ruling against the will of the legislature. The Federalists in control knew that to deny the duly elected Senator a seat in secret hearings would prove politically dangerous and acquiesced to temporarily opening the doors.

During the debate over opening the Gallatin hearings, Senator Alexander Martin introduced a measure to permanently open the Senate’s doors. After the open hearings contesting Gallatin’s eligibility, Martin’s measure found itself on the floor. Unlike previous attempts to pass a bill, this measure fell by only one vote. However, on a motion to reconsider, Vermont Senator Stephen Bradley switched his vote and brought three more northern senators with him to secure passage of the bill. Three months after Freneau’s Gazette went silent, the Senate voted 19-8 to open their doors to the public at the beginning of the next session.

These early efforts to open government to the people relied on the simple revolutionary notion that ordinary people had an equal say in public life and deserved the information to craft informed opinions.  The policies enacted may seem rudimentary by our standards today, but postal travel and open congressional sessions provided the meat of the information that fed public opinion and public debate.

(Part II will pick up in the 19th century.)