In 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the invasive nature of the American surveillance state raised many questions about state secrecy, the morality of state whistleblowing, and the role of government in general. What many don’t realize, however, was that the same dynamics were also at play during the American War for Independence, when Thomas Paine proved to be the first American whistleblower.
Indeed, as I point out in my new book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, his role in exposing the “Deane Affair” made him somewhat analogous to Snowden as a state pariah.
When it became apparent that an American agent in France, Silas Deane, had engaged in war profiteering, Paine first revealed the scheme to the public by way of his writings. As he divulged the information in a candid attempt to preserve republican virtue and guard against corruption, Paine drew the ire of American politicians who accused him of compromising the fortitude of America’s geopolitical alliances and undermining the War for Independence itself.
As a political scuffle over the incident played out in the Continental Congress and in the press, Paine acted as the unofficial spokesman for the congressional faction that admonished Deane for financial wrongdoing.
Paine portrayed the agent’s financial scheme as an unethical affront to the American treasury and republicanism in general. Deane claimed that he had left his financial records behind in Paris, and failed to provide information to Congress in regard to where they were located. “There is something in this concealment of papers that looks like an embezzlement,” Paine wrote.
Speaking up was a costly decision for the penman, who had gained immense popularity several years prior for authoring the wildly popular Common Sense. According to Paine’s political foes, his revelations endangered the diplomatic bond between France and the United States, because the profiteering transpired in a clandestine financial transfer program that began before the official the Franco-American alliance was made official in 1778.
Substantiating this was French foreign minister Conrad Alexandre Gérard’s immediate demand that Paine withdraw his accusations in the press. At least twice, Paine was even beaten by partisans in the streets of Philadelphia for exposing the corruption.
While the Continental Congress was split almost down the middle on the matter, the writer’s detractors succeeded in issuing a formal request to purge Paine as secretary to the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Despite this, Paine stood his ground. “If any gentleman has presented any memorial to this house which contains any charge against me,” he wrote, “I request, as a servant under your authority, an attested copy of the charge, and in my present character as a freeman of this country, I demand it.”
After a series of tie votes that nearly ousted him, Paine ultimately resigned from his position in early 1779. In his resignation letter, he described the chagrin he felt at the “expressions of suspicions and degradation” levied against him, and denied all wrongdoing. On the contrary, he defended his actions on the ground that he provided a public service to the American people by exposing corruption and public wrongdoing.
For a time, the event cost Paine his reputation. It was but one entry in a long list of occasions where he maintained a controversial and unpopular outlook despite the steep political penalties for doing so. Much like Snowden, Paine divulged government records intended to be kept secret from the public – at great personal risk to his own well-being.
My book, Thomas Paine: A Lifetime of Radicalism, details Paine’s experience as a public servant, expounds upon his propensity to expose corruption in government, and reveals what led him back into the good graces of America’s political class. Paperback, hardcover, and personalization options are all available!