Social media, "WikiLeaks" and false news in the 18th century: Thomas Jefferson and the "Mazzei letter"

In today’s public discourse, nothing is more super-charged than social media, "WikiLeaks" and false news. We like to think about these issues as something new. However, if we discount the internet and digital context and look through a much longer historical lens, we see that the issue is really about platform, dating back to the advent of the printing press and the mass distribution of printed contents. In the Biblical words of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, "there is nothing new under the sun". And at the end of the 18th century, this sun blazed no brighter than on the “Mazzei letter” affair, involving the later-to-be vice-president and thereafter president, Thomas Jefferson. At issue were two of the primary means of communication at the end of the 18th century, the letter and the newspaper, one a private matter and the other inherently public. The "Mazzei letter" affair shows what can happen when this separation between the private and public was breached.

The political dynamics of the nascent American republic in the early 1790’s (remember the U.S. Constitution had been ratified only in 1788) witnessed an ever-increasing split between Jefferson and the ruling Federalist party led by President George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, especially over relations with France and England. Jefferson was an ardent supporter of France, having been energized by the French Revolution. In 1794, John Jay was sent by President Washington to England to negotiate a treaty (the Jay Treaty), which put an end to the dispute between those two countries.

The treaty enraged Jefferson, to the extent that when, on April 24, 1796, he wrote a private letter to a former neighbor in the United States, Philip Mazzei, now living in Pisa, Jefferson could not resist adding several sentences about the political situation. He described the Washington presidency (and by extension, the Federalist party) as “[a]n Anglican, monarchial and aristocratical party”. The distinguished American historian, Gordon Wood, summarizes the gist of Jefferson’s dissatisfaction with Washington as follows (“Empire of Liberty”, p. 235) —
“[Washington] was trying to subvert the American’s love of liberty and republicanism and turn the American government into something resembling the rotten British monarchy.”
Jefferson’s own words were much more graphic—
“It would give you a fever were I to name to you the apostates who have gone over to these heresies, men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England.”
So far, what we find is an instance where a person lets his political hair down in writing to a friend (and we should keep in mind the rich tradition of epistolary communication at that time). That should have been the end of it. But it was not. What happened was a series of translations, publications and reproductions of the “political” portions of the letter, spanning countries and exploiting the social media of that era, accompanied by claims of distortion and worse of the original text. According to Wood, Mazzei translated these portions of the letter into Italian for publication in a newspaper in Florence (but see below). From there, it found its way to a French version that was published in France. The French version was later translated into English for publication in the American press, shortly after Jefferson had begun to serve as the vice-president under the Federalist president, John Adams.

But it is not so certain that there ever was a published translation into Italian. The Editorial Note to the Papers of Thomas Jefferson concludes that “[t]he Editors, however, have found no trace of an Italian publication …”, although Jefferson himself apparently believed so. At most, Mazzei may have translated the contents in Italian for an acquaintance in the diplomatic corps. The Editors suggest that Mazzei most likely copied the relevant contents in their original English and shared it with two friends, one of whom upbraided Mazzei for circulating the text without permission. Mazzei’s motivations for making the copies and dispatching them are not clear. Also not clear is exactly who translated the contents into French (perhaps from the original English, perhaps from an Italian translation) and who forwarded it to the French newspaper, Le Moniteur Universel.

What then happened in the United States is particularly noteworthy, involving, as it did, translations into English from a translation into French from either an Italian translation or from the original English text. As the Editors write--
"Three and a half months after the extract's appearance in France, the Federalist editor of the New York Minerva, Noah Webster, obtained a copy of the French newspaper from Epaphras Jones, a New York City merchant and ship owner who had recently returned from France. Webster arranged to have the extract and the Moniteur's subjoined paragraphs translated into English and printed in the 2 May issue of his newspaper. Subsequent mentions of it appeared in the Minerva on 3, 4, 6, 8, and 19 May. When Jones requested the return of his French newspaper, Webster made a copy for himself and had it certified by James Kent on 22 May. Webster also noted that Timothy Pickering, then secretary of state, “sent to me for the original paper, and had the letter in the original with a translation, if I mistake not, published in the Gazette of the United States”. After its publication there on 4 May, Pickering had his own copy prepared and certified by his chief clerk for his files (on 3 June). Pickering returned the newspaper to Webster. The extract in the Moniteur, of unclear lineage, had by then become the official version of Jefferson's letter, from which all American subsequent versions derived" [footnotes and citations omitted].
American newspapers. pro and anti- Federalist, pro and anti-Republican, themselves published the contents in English (not based on the original English text, but from an English translation from a French, and perhaps even before then, an Italian version.) Sometimes this derived English text was accompanied by commentary, itself not infrequently expressed in the most scurrilous terms. As Wood describes, Federalist opponents of Jefferson read out the these portions on the floor of the Congressional House of Representatives, and one congressman then proclaimed: “Nothing but treason and insurrection would be the consequence of such opinions.” Claims were made about the accuracy of the English text and Jefferson defenders even challenged the attribution to Jefferson as the author of the text (which apparently he never denied). The controversy over the letter hounded Jefferson throughout the rest of his life (he died in 1826).

With one ear attuned to the public discourse of our own moment, what do we make of the "Mazzei letter" affair? Once the letter left Jefferson's hands (presumably he did not make a copy), it was left to the whims of the social media of the day. The role of the newspapers was crucial. As Wood observes, all parties involved sought—
"… a way of dealing with the immense power over public opinion that newspapers were developing in the 1790's. In fact, the American press had become the most important instrument of democracy in the modern world, and because the Federalists were fearful of too much democracy, they believed the press had to be restrained" (p. 250) [but the Federalists lost political power forever by 1800].
Then, as now, IP seems to have played a minor role, if any. At least in the 1790's, one could point to the fact that the copyright laws were in their infancy (translations were in any event not yet protectable) as well as to the absence of protection for privacy and confidences. The dispute over the unauthorized publication of the private etchings of Prince Albert and the recognition of a right in confidences was still over 50 years away (Prince Albert v. Strange).

Still the last word, as the first, belongs to Kohelet/Ecclesiastes—"there is nothing new under the sun".

By Neil Wilkof
Social media, "WikiLeaks" and false news in the 18th century: Thomas Jefferson and the "Mazzei letter" Social media, "WikiLeaks" and false news in the 18th century: Thomas Jefferson and the "Mazzei letter" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Monday, January 16, 2017 Rating: 5

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