Though unparalleled in scope, means and effect, Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election is not without historical precedent. Meddling in American elections goes as far back as the country’s first contested presidential election. Though little-remembered today, in 1796, a French agent released private information to the public to try and sway the election in favor of Thomas Jefferson. As one federalist put it: “In short there never was so barefaced and disgraceful an interference of a foreign power in any free country.” The strategic similarity between this incident and the Russian effort in 2016 illustrates how partisan politics, by causing groups to place narrow electoral interests above national interests, creates distinct national-security vulnerabilities.
In the fall of 1794, American delegates signed the Jay Treaty with Great Britain in an attempt to resolve outstanding trade and territorial issues, while keeping the fledgling republic from being drawn into ongoing hostilities between Britain and France. The Directory, the five-member committee governing France at the time, viewed the treaty as an abandonment of prior French-U.S. commitments. In June of 1795, as President George Washington debated moving the treaty to the Senate for approval, the Directory sent a new minister to the United States with specific instructions identifying the Jay Treaty as France’s “foremost grievance” against the country.
French intervention in American politics was not without precedent. As early as the Revolutionary War, French agents had routinely used bribery and other pressures to influence the Continental Congress. One particularly notorious incident occurred in 1793 when war broke out between Britain and France. Without first consulting the president, the French minister to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genet, began commissioning privateers out of Charleston, South Carolina to fight the British. The “Genet Affair” divided Washington’s cabinet, especially between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who favored France and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who favored neutrality. In the end, Washington issued a neutrality policy and his administration demanded Genet’s recall.
In 1795, the minister, Pierre-Auguste Adet, began bribing senators to derail the Jay Treaty, but the French government’s lack of funds hampered these efforts, and the Senate narrowly approved it. Using his diplomatic status to obtain a copy of the Treaty text, Adet had it published. The release provoked a public outcry throughout United States and sharply divided Americans.
By the fall of 1796, tempers continued to flare as the country headed for its first contested presidential contest after Washington’s two essentially uncontested elections. Washington’s Farewell Address signaled his intention to step aside, prompting bitter competition between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans to spill into the open. The partisan fight provided the opening for Adet. Having failed to kill the Jay Treaty, he began actively working to support the Republican Party and the candidacy of Thomas Jefferson.
Adet accurately viewed Jefferson, a former envoy to Paris, as the pro-French candidate and expected that if Jefferson were elected, he would likely turn the country against Britain to France’s benefit. Traveling throughout the country, Adet sought to increase Republican support for Jefferson and France, while sending reports on the U.S. political scene back to the Directory. He portrayed Republican despair in the face of Federalist dominance, and American demands for an active French hand. “[T]hey all told me that France must take measures to … make them feel the necessity of putting at the head of the government a man of known character …” Adet made a revelatory assessment of the necessary foreign policy tool. “The merchants here, citizen minister, can only be directed by fear …”
At the time, both parties considered Pennsylvania the pivotal state in the election. The state would choose its electors by statewide vote on Oct. 31. The electors would then cast their ballots for president on Dec. 7.
Carefully choosing both his moment and methods, Adet acted. Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 15, he dispatched a trio of letters to Secretary of State Thomas Pickering. Simultaneously, he sent these letters for publication to the Philadelphia Aurora, the most widely read Republican newspaper of the time. The paper, edited by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, had a circulation of approximately 1,700 and was free in most taverns.
These letters were not mere diplomatic notes but appeals calculated to intimidate U.S. electors. In his first letter, Adet denounced the Jay Treaty and informed Pickering of the Directory’s decision to treat the neutral vessels at sea in the same manner as it treated British vessels. His next letter, according to other correspondence, called on all Frenchmen in the U.S. to wear the tri-colored cockade or else be denied consular services. This order, adopted not only by the French but also by Francophile Americans, created a visible show of support for France. His last letter declared that the United States had ceased to be neutral and that Adet was suspending his functions as minister. “Let your government return to itself” he implored. In effect, Adet made clear that France threatened war if the states did not elect Jefferson.
Washington allowed Pickering to respond, but due to the short time before the election, he could not verify the message himself. In his “intemperate” reply, Pickering asserted the U.S. would continue its maritime policy, and argued that British conduct at sea towards U.S. vessels carrying French goods was fully lawful. Adding to Pickering’s response, prominent federalists, including Alexander Hamilton and Noah Webster, published vigorous attacks on the French alliance. Furthermore, the Federalist papers accused Adet of acting without proper authority and asserted that the Directory had never ordered a change in neutrality policy.
While some questions remain about his discretion, Adet’s correspondence suggests the Directory ordered most of his actions. Writing back to France, Adet confirmed to the Directory that he notified the secretary of state of the change in neutrality policy: “I had it printed to arouse the attention of the public at the moment of choosing the electors who [in turn] must choose the President.” Waiting for first round of electoral returns from three Republican districts, he fretted about the possibility of ballot tampering by his opponents: “The man charged with carrying them can let himself be corrupted, loose his packets, fake a sickness.”
In the end, Jefferson won overwhelmingly in Pennsylvania, yet John Adams won the presidency by a three-electoral-vote margin. Commentators at the time thought Adet’s intervention turned the Pennsylvania delegation to voting for Jefferson in order to avoid war. However, accounts from the time reveal the intervention was markedly less successful in other parts of the country and even suggest the intervention may have hurt Jefferson by provoking resentment over the interference. (The question of whether Jefferson actively colluded with the French is beyond the scope of this post.)
A Precursor to Modern Election Interference
Comparing the French interference in 1796 to the Russian interference in 2016 reveals striking strategic similarities. In both cases, the foreign power clearly favored one political party over the other. The January 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russian active measures found with high confidence that the Kremlin developed a preference for Donald Trump and sought to “denigrate Hillary Clinton.” Similarly, Adet’s correspondence revealed France’s preference for Jefferson and hostility towards Adams.
Furthermore, both foreign actors released private communications to the public. According to the U.S. intelligence community, Russian military intelligence, also known as the GRU, stole private emails from, among others, the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. It then released these to the public through the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks. In the French operation, Adet simultaneously sent his letters to Pickering and to the Aurora for publication. Adet likely wanted the public to perceive his letters as private diplomatic communications, bearing the full weight of a serious threat by the French government. If so, Adet undercut himself with his provocative rhetorical flourishes: “Men still exist who can say, here a ferocious Englishman slaughtered my father.”
Both actions sought to provoke a distinct response in the electorate. The Russian leaks revealed embarrassing information on the Democratic party, in part playing into a narrative of party favoritism during the primaries. Released over a more extended period time than in the Adet case, the Russian leaks perpetually threw the Clinton campaign into disarray and sought to dissuade voters from trusting Clinton. Similarly, Adet’s communications announced a dramatic shift in French neutrality policy, and threatened war should the country not choose Jefferson.
But the efforts were marked by considerable operational differences. In the 2016 interference, news sources covered the email dumps without knowing precisely who had supplied them, and many outlets focused more heavily on the content than the identity of the provider. By contrast, Adet’s letters bore his signature and sought to plainly represent the French government.
Finally, in both instances, the president charged cabinet officials with responding to the foreign intervention. In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a joint statement warning that the Russian government ordered the hacks. In 1796, Secretary of State Pickering published his “intemperate” reply, in which he defended U.S. actions and admonished Adet for publishing his letter.
The contrast between the two incidents also shows how available technologies change the scope and conduct of interference operations. Adet’s operation had little reach beyond the formal press and the campaigning he engaged in personally, whereas the Russian government supplemented its information releases with social media and conventional propaganda operations.
Responding to Foreign Election Interference in the Founding Era and Today
Realizing that foreign election interference was a political problem in the Founding era calls for some examination of Founding-era solutions. France’s interference raises the question of why Congress did not respond through legislation; after all, a prior diplomatic kerfuffle, also involving the French, had contributed to Congress’ passage of the Alien Tort Statute in 1789.
Instead of legislation, the country’s leaders resorted to political prescriptions. In his Farewell Address, written in significant part by Hamilton, Washington had warned against entangling alliance and the dangers of political factions. Scholars have traced these famous political prescriptions to Washington’s largely forgotten concerns about foreign meddling on the eve of the election. As his address demonstrates, Washington conceived of political factions as inherently tied to foreign control: “As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments [to a particular country] are particularly alarming...How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion...”
The Adet incident suggests that public attribution is vitally important for responding to foreign meddling. In the wake of the 2016 interference, more rigorous enforcement under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, FARA, and other transparency laws targeting foreign actors, such as 18 U.S.C. § 951, can help prosecutors identify foreign propagandists and agents. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the federal conspiracy statute have also figured into law enforcement responses.
Last Friday, the Department of Justice charged a Russian national for conduct related to meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. The announcement came just hours after the intelligence community warned that Russian, Iranian and Chinese actors are involved in active campaigns to interfere in the 2018 and 2020 votes. More than 200 years after the first round of meddling in U.S. elections, the country must remain alert to what Washington called the “insidious wiles of foreign influence.”