John Henry, an Irish immigrant to the United States, served as an officer in the U.S. Army during and after the Quasi-War, studied law in Vermont, managed a farm, and authored pro-Federalist pieces in local newspapers. He then moved to Montreal with the intention of practicing law or obtaining a government appointment. Instead, Henry ended up becoming a spy. He traveled to New England in order to determine whether those states might support Britain in the event of war with the United States or even rejoin the Crown as colonies. One letter from February 1809 claimed that “the federal party declares, that in the event of a war, the state of Vermont will treat seriously for itself with Great Britain . . . without any regard to the policy of the general government.” Henry reported similar Federalist intentions in the state of Massachusetts in a letter from March 1809. Henry’s service ended abruptly after only a few months. He never received the official appointment in Canada that he coveted. The British government also failed to compensate him for his service.
Trouble began when Henry met a young Frenchman who introduced himself as Count Edouard de Crillon on a voyage from England to Boston in fall 1811. The two shared stories and Crillon evidently won Henry’s trust. Henry confided his disappointment in how he was treated in return for spying for the British. The two agreed that Henry’s correspondence with the British was valuable and that the United States government would probably pay a high price for it. Eventually, both Henry and Crillon found themselves in Washington, peddling Henry’s collection of papers to the Madison administration. Madison and his Secretary of State, James Monroe, settled on a price of $50,000, a tremendous sum of money at the time. On March 9, 1812, Madison sent the papers to Congress along with a cover letter in which he explained that they contained the workings of a “secret agent” of Britain, engaged in “intrigues” for the purpose of “destroying the Union.” The Madison administration and Democratic-Republicans probably believed they were on the verge of achieving a major political victory.
Unfortunately for Madison, the papers were not the original correspondence, but rather copies that Henry had made. They did not contain the names of any Federalist conspirators or reveal any actual plot, i.e. collusion, between the Federalists and Britain. In a reversal of the XYZ Affair, the Democratic-Republicans now found themselves losing the propaganda battle. Of course, the revelation of the papers in Congress immediately ignited partisan debate. The affair became an outright scandal when the enterprising Josiah Quincy, a Federalist Representative from Massachusetts, managed to find out how much the Madison administration had paid Henry. The Federalist members of the House of Representatives published an open letter to their constituents declaring, “it was cause of regret that a communication (the Henry papers) should have been purchased by an unprecedented expenditure of secret service money, and used by the Chief Magistrate (Madison) to disseminate suspicion and jealous; and to excite resentment among the citizens, by suggesting imputations against a portion of them, as unmerited by their patriotism, as unwarranted by evidence.”
The Democratic-Republicans sputtered a number of excuses in response. They even deposed Crillon in Congress on March 13 and 14, 1812. Crillon related the sequence of events, how he came to know Henry, and what Henry told him. He conveniently left out the details of the deal he and Henry had made with Madison and Monroe as that would obviously embarrass Madison, Monroe, and the Democratic-Republicans. While Crillon protected the Madison administration (and himself) from association with Henry’s dishonorable double-dealing, he provided no actual evidence of Federalist “collusion” with the British.
The crumbling Democratic-Republican case against the Federalists caused the Madison administration to desperately write to the American minister in Paris, instructing him to find Henry and request the names of any Federalists he could incriminate. Just then, the whole affair collapsed. The U.S. Minister to France discovered that Crillon was an impostor who had traveled around Europe defrauding people. Crillon had also swindled Henry. Crillon deeded Henry an imaginary estate in France in exchange for part of the money the Madison administration had paid for the papers. Henry arrived in Paris and requested compensation from the U.S. Minister and the American government for the portion of the money he lost to Crillon. By this point, the humiliated Madison administration was done with both men.
We are the Authors of Our Own Misfortune
This early history of the country takes us to today. American tropes concerning foreign intrigue and conspiracy have resurfaced on both sides in the contemporary debate. Yet, each political party makes claims to knowing the “truth.” The Democrats and Republicans also wield accusations of treason against each other, either in colluding with a foreign power or conspiring to undermine the duly elected president. Opposition politics are alive and well . . . and as toxic as ever.
The precedents set during the XYZ Affair and Henry Affair foreshadowed events today. Hounded by an unrelenting and blatantly partisan press, the Adams administration and Federalist Congress enacted a series of laws to curb “fake news”—while publishing their own—and suppress the political opposition under the pretext of national security. The Henry papers illustrated the temptations and risks of using foreign intelligence for domestic political purposes. Madison and Monroe purchased unsupported intelligence gathered by a spy for a foreign state in order to use it as dirt on the political opposition. Sound familiar? Furthermore, those who made allegations of conspiracy and collusion often suffered “blowback,” to borrow an intelligence term referring to the adverse consequences of an intelligence operation. Given the back and forth of the current dispute, both the Democrats and the Republicans may experience blowback.
The press seldom has clean hands in periods of civil strife. Thinly-veiled or even outright partisanship has led journalists on both sides to eagerly and prematurely publish “plots” of questionable origin or fidelity. Trump has fired back at his critics in the press as well, leading to hyperbolized counter-rhetoric from some media partisans about the loss of First Amendment protections. Nothing remotely similar to the Sedition Act is on the legislative table, and even the harshest critics of the president have been neither fined nor confined—unlike during the Adams administration. The American press must re-evaluate its own responsibility for abetting partisan politics and sowing civil discord, yet another feature of our history dating back to the foundation of the country.
The country is experiencing the worst damage in how the political climate affects civic life. Opposition politics have allowed the power of the state to be wielded against private citizens in the form of surveillance, prosecution, and detention. In this respect, the parties not only weaponize politics, but also criminalize political behavior in a way that may dissuade good citizens from seeking public office or advising politicians. Who can blame them? Worse still, opposition politics have turned citizens against each other, even driving families and friends apart. Political differences are destroying the concept of civil discourse in the form of the freedom to disagree over politics without being branded a traitor (or any other terrible name). Disagreement is an operational principle of democracy, but too many partisans and factions now seek to ostracize or even criminalize those who disagree with them. Forget collusion or conspiracy, democracies are perfectly capable of self-destructing on their own.
The study of history always manages to frustrate people who set out looking for signs of the “unprecedented” in their own day. There is nothing unprecedented about the current problems in U.S. politics and government. Instead, the country is simply perpetuating bad precedents. The accusation of “collusion” will never disappear entirely from American opposition politics partly because foreign intrigue will never disappear from American politics. To be fair, not only have foreign powers always interfered in American political processes, but the United States has interfered in theirs as well. The American people, inherently suspicious of political power, will always nurture and even entertain fears of conspiracy and intrigue. Similarly, the two political parties and partisans in the press will always take every opportunity to tarnish the opposition—even at the expense of due diligence and civic decency. Still, Americans can study the past and learn from it in order to temper these and other tensions of self-government. The true foundation of the American Republic’s political system lies not in the parties or the free press, but in an informed citizenry.
Jeff Rogg is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. His dissertation, The Spy and the State, explains contemporary controversies in U.S. intelligence by reexamining America’s not-so-secret history.