The Foreign Relations Series as an Exercise of Democracy

Our research into the history of the FRUS series uncovered the fact that since the 1790s the U.S. Government has released foreign affairs documentation to the public. Nevertheless, the publication of documentation in Civil War-era FRUS volumes still elicited some resistance from our ministers abroad who found their correspondence suddenly open to the public. One such complaint came from Charles Francis Adams, stationed in London, in 1864. Secretary of State William Seward sent Adams a thoughtful and comprehensive response. For Seward, publishing documentation had a solid Constitutional basis that harkened back to precedents set as early as the 1790s: “The Constitution of the United States requires the President from time to time to give Congress information concerning the state of the Union.” Beyond this Constitutional obligation, Seward noted, “our foreign affairs have … been a subject of anxiety as deep as that which is felt in regard to military and naval events.” This widespread interest demanded a response. “The Government continually depends upon the support of Congress and the People, and that support can be expected only in the condition of keeping them thoroughly and truthfully informed of the manner in which the powers derived from them are executed.” Seward linked the publication directly to the exercise of democracy; because the authority of the government derived from the people, the people deserved to see the correspondence which revealed how policy was being carried out.

Secretary of State William H. Seward
(Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Seward reiterated practices and principles enshrined during the early republic, telling Adams that “Congress and the country” had a “right” to see the documents that had caused Adams such consternation. Since “history would be incomplete without that account,” the President had a “duty to communicate it, unless special reason of a public nature existed for withholding it.” Seward did not believe that his correspondence with Adams qualified for this exception, and even if it did, sufficient time had elapsed to justify release: “the question which had called out this dispatch had been for a time put at rest.” Indeed, for Seward the greater error would have been not to release the documents. Failing to publish the correspondence “would have seemed to imply a confession that it was improper in itself, while to practice reserve on so great a question would be liable to be deemed an abuse of the confidence which Congress and the people had so freely reposed in the Government.” Congress and the American people needed to make an open and honest assessment of the government’s foreign policy, and the publication of these documents enabled the Constitutional framework of accountability to function.

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