Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions

BOOK REVIEW: Democracy in Darkness: Secrecy and Transparency in the Age of Revolutions  by Katlyn Marie Carter (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2023)

In our age of freedom of information acts, C-Span, and a never-ending news cycle, we tend to equate transparent government with democracy and sensible public policy. In Democracy in Darkness, however, Katlyn Marie Carter, without writing a brief for secrecy, argues that open government does not necessarily produce good government.

Carter, an assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, sets out to explain “how, why, and with what effect the question of state secrecy was linked to, and shaped, the meaning of representative democracy” (page 5). She posits two theories of representation. “Reflective representation” assumes lawmakers should be guided by public opinion and requires a high degree of transparency. “Insulated representation” assumes elected officials will act as responsible but independent agents, and it allows for more secrecy.  Carter’s argument rests on her analysis of the American Founding and the French Revolution, and she divides Democracy in Darkness into three parts.  Part One consists of two chapters covering the 1770s and 1780s, an era in which government secrecy become increasingly suspect. Part Two devotes four chapters to the years from 1787 to 1795, a time in which America’s conservative Federalists and France’s radical Jacobins both came, counterintuitively, to embrace insulated representation and state secrecy. Part Three, in two chapters, brings the story to 1800 when Napoleon openly, and Thomas Jefferson more discretely, consolidated a move away from popular participation in the political process.

In America, colonial assemblies typically met in closed sessions. Once the American Revolution erupted, “secrecy became a dominant feature” (p. 38) of the deliberations of the Continental Congress, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 assembled behind closed doors.  But times were changing. Revolutionary-era state constitutions began requiring open public meetings and the printing of legislative journals absent a clear need for confidentiality. Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution attacked it as the product of a clandestine conclave, and the state ratifying conventions elected to hold their sessions in public. Virginia’s James Madison, who had defended the Constitutional Convention’s decision to debate in secret, came in the 1790s to defend transparency as a way to mobilize public opinion against what he saw as a nefarious Federalist faction then controlling the national government.  Federalist efforts during the presidency of John Adams to squelch dissent with the Sedition Act of 1798 proved counter- productive and contributed to Jefferson’s victory in the 1800 presidential race. Jefferson, far more politically adept than Adams, managed to control the flow of information to the public without arousing effective opposition.

The secrecy of France’s Old Regime led French revolutionaries to associate confidentiality with despotism, and they saw publicity as a source of legitimacy for their newly-formed National Assembly. Ironically, Carter argues, public exposure “tended to undermine the representative regime rather than bolster it” (p. 105). Deputies sometimes played to galleries packed with Parisians, who hardly represented the nation as a whole. Louis XVI’s failed attempt to leave France in June 1791 exposed his opposition to the revolution and proved a turning point for the assembly. Deputies closed their debates to the public, but faced an unsolvable dilemma.  The openness they had originally championed, according to Carter, had created a culture of popular vigilance. At the same time, the deputies from the major factions — Jacobins, Girondins, and Montagnards – believed it was their duty to formulate a “national will” apart from popular passions. Almost inherently unstable, the revolution degenerated into Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.  After his fall, a demand for retribution from victims of the Terror led to public trials in which the revolution’s excesses were initially blamed in part on secrecy, but those sentiments died quickly. Instead, French leaders soon began to explain revolutionary violence as a result of an excess of publicity, which had led in essence to mob rule.

Democracy in Darkness has much to commend it. Carter’s research in American and French sources is impressive; her endnotes provide an invaluable guide to the secondary literature of the period.  She is to be applauded for tackling a subject of enduring importance to any representative government; contemporary historians have woefully neglected the problems of governance. Carter’s conclusions are usually reasonable. Yet Democracy in Darkness is an ambitious undertaking, and big projects can present big challenges. Readers may question Carter’s sample size: how much can two revolutions tell us about how democracy and secrecy might be reconciled?  And if we examine only two political systems, might England’s stable constitutional monarchy be more instructive than the French Revolution, which produced the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s dictatorship, and wars that ravaged Europe for two decades? We might also ask how Carter’s somewhat pessimistic conclusions about participatory democracy in America might have changed if she had extended her narrative into the era of Jacksonian Democracy, with its expanded franchise and the direct election of presidential electors.

In any event, Carter does not quite answer the questions she poses at the beginning of her book, and a cumbersome writing style compounds her difficulties. She has a tendency to lapse into convoluted, academic jargon. She controls it for the most part, but Democracy in Darkness is, nevertheless, a book for specialists, not general readers.

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