Russ Castronovo: Invoke Ben Franklin's defense

May 19, 2013 

Bradley Manning should call Benjamin Franklin to his defense.

Any day now, a military court will sentence Manning, possibly to life in prison, for leaking confidential documents. Government prosecutors charge that Manning aided the enemy by collaborating with WikiLeaks.

Ben Franklin knew a thing or two about the importance of circulating sensitive information. Back in 1773, he played a crucial role in leaking private letters written by the royal governor of Massachusetts. What proved so embarrassing to the British Empire was the letters' disclosure that people in high places secretly believed "there must be an abridgement" of the liberties that American colonists enjoyed.

The letters became a smoking gun for colonists, proof that Parliament had been plotting all along to place unprecedented restrictions upon American freedoms. Up and down the Atlantic seaboard, as news of the letters spread, more than a few people living in British North America began to question their status as imperial subjects.

In the battle over public opinion, the stolen letters that Franklin transmitted to the Sons of Liberty were a decisive weapon for American patriots such as Sam Adams.

Just as Manning sought out WikiLeaks to publish information that he felt citizens had the right to know, Franklin turned to a group of American radicals to spread the secret doings of an empire.

Like Manning, Franklin was soon under investigation for what many in Britain viewed as an act of treachery. He worried that he might wind up in the infamous Newgate prison in London.

The portrait of Franklin that emerged from the show trial orchestrated by Britain's Privy Council bears no resemblance to the image we now have of this Founding Father. Dishonorable, scheming, faithless: This is what detractors in Parliament called Franklin.

We hear echoes of those calls today in reports that vilify Manning as an "angry gay traitor," to quote pundit Ann Coulter.

Franklin pretended not to understand what all the fuss was about. In his words, he had merely acted as a "public messenger" in the belief that Americans in the 18th century had the right to know that British officials were involved in intrigues that threatened the very principles of good government.

So, too, Manning has taken up the thankless task of delivering messages to the public. His disclosures have allowed Americans in the 21st century — and others worldwide — to attempt an honest appraisal of the military and diplomatic operations that are being conducted in the name of freedom.

For long periods, Manning was held in solitary confinement.

But he was not alone. His historical double, Ben Franklin, was right there with him. They both took risks believing that people's access to information determines the quality of public life.

Castronovo is Dorothy Draheim professor of English and American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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