John Adams, second president of the United States, and Mike Huebsch, Wisconsin politician from West Salem, both have voiced concern about having their correspondence wind up on the front page of a newspaper.
Former Walker administration officials recently said that Huebsch, who was Department of Administration secretary at the time, told them that they should avoid using email or his state phone to correspond with him, presumably to avoid public exposure of official business.
Huebsch, who is now a member of the Public Service Commission, denied saying that, but he did tell the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that he made sure that administration officials understood that their communications could be made public. “In this era of ‘gotcha’ politics,” he said in response to the center, “where opponents and some journalists use anything available not just to embarrass but destroy, extra caution is essential.”
I came across Adams’ take on this subject out of my curiosity about what Adams and his wife, Abigail, were discussing in their famous and extensive correspondence about this time of year in 1778.
In one of John Adams’ letters, I came across the following explanation to Abigail why she might not have received a letter recently: “For Heaven’s sake, my dear, don’t indulge a thought that it is possible for me to neglect or forget all that is dear to me in this world. It is impossible for me to write as I did in America. What should I write? It is not safe to write anything that one is not willing should go into all the newspapers of the world. I know not by whom to write. I never know what conveyance is safe.”
The letter was written Dec. 2 from France where he was acting as America’s negotiator for a treaty of alliance. Abigail was at home in Massachusetts surrounded by “mountains of snow” as she wrote in her letter of Dec. 27.
The two of them were often separated as Adams served as architect of the revolution, diplomat, vice president and then as president. Through all of this the two of them maintained a correspondence that amounted to some 1,100 letters,
Adams might have fretted about his correspondence going astray on a ship bound for America, but his views on the importance of information in a democracy were clear in a treatise written in 1765: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.”
If the ruling party in Wisconsin subscribes to this fundamental tenet of democracy, then we can expect to see them back away from Huebsch’s more pinched view of Wisconsin’s longstanding public policy that “all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”
Politicians of all political stripes should keep in mind Adams’ declaration that it is not only the conduct of our officials that can be revealed by open records and meetings, but their character as well. Is that exposure behind the efforts in 2015 to expand government secrecy?
Some of Adams’ character is revealed in the letter he wrote to Abigail on New Year’s Day 1779, and perhaps a lesson for our time on humility: “I wish you a happy new year and many happy years, and all the blessings of life. Who knows but this year may be more prosperous for our country than any we have seen? For my own part, I have hopes that it will. … You and I, however, must prepare our minds to enjoy the prosperity of others, not our own. In poverty and simplicity we shall be happy, whenever our country is so.”
Later, though, when he was president, Adams and his Federalists passed legislation that made malicious criticism of the president a felony.
So it goes in American politics. All the more reason for maintaining open government.