Kate Lawson, “Personal Privacy, Letter Mail, and the Post Office Espionage Scandal, 1844″

Abstract

The Post Office espionage scandal of 1844 began with the revelation that the British government, at the behest of the Austrians, had opened letters sent to the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini, then resident in London. This essay examines how letters themselves were represented in discussions of the scandal in parliament, the press, and other sources in June of that year. Two key attributes of letters were repeatedly identified, that letters were private and that letters contained secrets. The essay argues that these two claims about letters helped shape emerging definitions of privacy in personal communications and that the scandal raised questions about reasonable expectations of privacy that are at once Victorian and distinctly contemporary.

The Post Office Espionage Scandal[1]

Mazzini letter

Figure 1: Facsimile of the last page of a letter written from Giuseppe Mazzini to Carl Schurz (1851)

The Post Office espionage scandal of 1844 had its genesis in a request from the Austrian ambassador, Baron Philipp von Neumann, to the British Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sir James Graham. The Austrian government was eager to keep track of Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of the Young Italy movement, who was then living in exile in London. Mazzini and his group, which sought to create a unified Italy and to end the Austrian occupation, had planned various unsuccessful insurrections. Thus the Austrian ambassador asked Sir James Graham to monitor Mazzini. As a result, on 1 March 1844, Graham issued a warrant for the opening of letters sent to Mazzini. The Permanent Secretary at the Post Office was “to arrange that letters addressed to Mazzini be abstracted from the mailbags, taken to the ‘Inner Room,’ opened and copied” (Smith 191). The copies were sent to Graham who then forwarded them to Lord Aberdeen, the Foreign Secretary, who forwarded either copies of the letters or “the sense of each letter” (Smith 191) to Neumann.[2] The letters were then artfully re-sealed and sent on to Mazzini. Mazzini and his supporters began to suspect that his letters were being opened. They mailed test letters to Mazzini in which the paper was folded in a specific manner or certain small grains of material were enclosed. When the test letters were delivered, it became clear that they had been tampered with.

In a shrewdly worded petition presented to Parliament on 14 June 1844 by Thomas Duncombe, the radical MP for Finsbury, Mazzini asked for relief from such interference. Sir James Graham replied that because “Parliament placed its confidence in the individual exercising this power, it was not for the public good to pry or inquire into the particular causes which called for the exercise thereof. He could not consent to enter into any further explanations” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 893). A storm of controversy erupted when it became evident that the government felt free to violate the assumed privacy of the mail and would offer no explanation or justification. From June to August 1844, the issue of Post Office espionage was a major topic of discussion in both Parliament and the press. In July, secret committees were appointed by both the House of Commons and the Lords to inquire into the issue. Newspapers vigorously addressed the question of mail opening and fresh allegations were made by Duncombe.[3] By February 1845, interest in the question of letter opening had almost completely died away.[4]

The Post Office espionage scandal had at least one important result: after 1844, the practice of issuing warrants for secret letter opening virtually ceased. After this date, writes Bernard Porter, “Britain’s most continuous and systematic domestic espionage agency for probably two hundred years had ceased operating entirely in the political field” (Plots and Paranoia 78). David Vincent concurs, saying that the scandal created a significant “intermission in the history of state secrecy,” and adds that the affair was “the first modern crisis of public secrecy” (“The Origins of Public Secrecy in Britain” 230).[5]

This essay examines representations of letters in Parliament, the press and other sources in June of 1844. It begins by contextualising the claims made about letters through a brief account of the changes in the postal system in 1840, changes that made letters a medium of mass communication and thus a source of mass anxiety when revelations about letter-opening came to light. It then touches on the role of “official secrecy” in the Post Office scandal before turning to the issue of letter mail and personal privacy, an issue examined through the two most commonly repeated representations of letters in June of 1844, that letters were private and that letters contained secrets. These representations help explain the outrage at letter-opening in 1844.

Scandal and the Mail

Why was there a letter-opening scandal in 1844? As surprising as it may seem today, in the 1790s the espionage function of the Post Office was both ubiquitous and well known, but not the stuff of scandal (Porter, Plots and Paranoia 30).[6] Yet in 1844, when the fact of government tampering with the mails became evident, scandal ensued. Something clearly changed in attitudes towards secret letter opening in that fifty-year period.

Arguably there were local and specific reasons for this change in expectations about personal privacy. Alexander Welsh attributes the reaction to the 1840 introduction of the Penny Post, claiming that before this date “persons using the mails probably understood well enough the risks of submitting their business in writing to hands other than their own, but now suddenly it was very clear what kind of trust this act implied and how invidious its violation must be, since the mails were a service to be used by all” (54).[7] Undoubtedly, the growth in popularity of the mail had a role in creating the scandal, for, as more and more people used the mail service, it was increasingly relied on as a safe, as well as a cheap and efficient, way to convey information. The introduction of the Penny Post led to a dramatic increase in letter mail: approximately 76 million letters had been mailed in Britain in 1839, but, by 1850, that number had increased to almost 350 million (“Rowland Hill’s Postal Reforms”). Put another way, in 1839 there were 3.1 letters mailed per person per year, in 1840, 6.4 letters, and by 1850, 13.2 letters (“Growth of mails 1840-1920”). However, the success of the Penny Post is only one element in the Post Office scandal, for as Welsh’s own book indicates, the reformed postal service was part of a multifaceted “information revolution” that “bore directly on personal life” (52). Richard Menke writes that movements such as the one for postal reform “saw social progress in the improvement of private communications” and “located communal value in expanding personal relations” (39).[8] The progress and expansion that Menke identifies were part of a changing landscape of private communications in which expectations of personal privacy played a new role. The shock registered in the Post Office espionage scandal suggests that violations of these new expectations were intolerable.

Changing expectations of personal privacy have, of course, a much older provenance. Philippe Ariès argues that between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century something essential shifted in the conception of personal privacy. In the late Middle Ages, the individual “moved within the limits of a world that was neither public nor private as those terms are understood today,” whereas by the nineteenth century: “Men and women seek privacy. To obtain it, they insist on greater freedom to choose (or to feel that they are choosing) their own way of life, and they withdraw into the family, which becomes a refuge, a focus of private life” (Ariès 1, 2).[9] This essay can only touch on the large changes in ideas of privacy in the nineteenth century, but it is clear that the Post Office espionage scandal of 1844, local as it was, registered this shift.

Official Secrecy

While this essay focuses on articulations of a right to personal privacy in the letter-opening affair, it is important to mention that official government secrecy also played a role in the 1844 scandal. What David Vincent calls the “Janus face of secrecy”—government secrecy and personal secrecy—emerges clearly in the Post Office scandal, for, as Vincent states succinctly, “Secret police destroyed the ability to police your own secrets” (The Culture of Secrecy 21). Personal privacy, understood as the right to control your own secrets, could be secretly violated by government actions carried out by the police or other state authorities. Privacy and the representation of personal secrets are examined below, but secret government action was a much discussed aspect of the Post Office scandal.

“Official secrecy,” that is, the protection of government or state secrets, was tacitly invoked by Sir James Graham in his refusal, quoted above, to justify or even comment on the opening of private letters in Parliament. This refusal was deemed by many to be objectionable. The Times on 25 June 1844 called for Sir James to offer a rationale for letter opening, arguing “the cause of its exercise ought to be fully explained and justified” (“A discussion took place last night” 5). Likewise, those who opened a letter should not act secretly but, Duncombe argued in the House of Commons, should write “on the back of it, ‘opened by authority;’ for, in that case, the individual whose family secrets might be exposed by such a proceeding would be made aware of the fact, whilst under the existing system he would be left in ignorance of it” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 898).[10] Charles Dickens agreed, and on 28 June 1844 he wrote around the seal of two letters that he mailed: “It is particularly requested that if Sir James Graham should open this, he will not trouble himself to seal it [agai]n” (Dickens 4. 151, 153). If his private letters were being read by the government, Dickens wanted to know.

Secret government action created what Duncombe called a “system of espionage.” Letters, he said, “were returned so skilfully closed, that the individual to whom they were directed was totally ignorant of the fact of their having been so opened” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 892). The very term “espionage” implies secret government repression, for, as Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1825, “To the word espionage a stigma is attached” as it suggests “an oppressive system of police, which subjects innocent actions to punishment, [and] which condemns secretly and arbitrarily” (Bentham n. pag., bk. 1 ch. 13).[11] Duncombe’s scenario, in which those writing or receiving letters are “totally ignorant” of the “system of espionage” used against them, tacitly evokes Bentham’s, where one’s “innocent actions” are “secretly and arbitrarily” condemned by an “oppressive system.” Critics of the Home Secretary’s actions demanded what we today would call transparency and accountability. However, the focus of this essay is the other side of Vincent’s “Janus face of secrecy,” that is, on personal privacy and its relation to secrecy.

Privacy: “Opening Private Letters”

In the aftermath of the revelations about Post Office espionage, two main assertions were made about letters in parliamentary debates, leading articles and letters to the editor: letters were private and letters contained secrets. Although these two claims are related, the two will be treated separately, the second having a particular rhetorical effect which is explored below.

The essentially private nature of letters was frequently affirmed. A Times leader on 25 June 1844 defined “The privilege of opening private letters” as the privilege “of violating confidence”—“perhaps, the most odious privilege with which a British Minister could be intrusted” (“A discussion took place last night” 5). In the House of Lords on the same day, the Earl of Haddington argued that “there was nothing more sacred than private communication passing through the Post-office” (“House of Lords” 2), echoing Thomas Carlyle’s claim about the sacredness of the mail made a week earlier in a letter to the Times: “it is a question vital to us that sealed letters in an English post-office be, as we all fancied they were, respected as things sacred” (Carlyle n. pag.). In a culture with a still-powerful religious impulse, or at least vocabulary, the word “sacred” made sealed letters appear sacrosanct and made violations a kind of sacrilege and desecration.[12] The importance of the letter’s seal was insisted upon in a letter to the Times on 26 June 1844 from “Tuta Fides”; this writer figured the inviolable privacy of a letter by stating hyperbolically that it was “an established point that the seal of a letter is of equal strength with a brickwall” (6). It was left to Punch to reinforce the currency of these claims about sealed letters and the sacred, albeit facetiously: imagining Sir James Graham at work upon a letter’s seal “with a crow-bar, smashing red and black wax,” the writer confesses that “my one weakness is a disgust, a horror, that any man should dare to profane the sanctity of my letters!” (“My Dear Sir James” 2). Whether serious or in jest, all of these speakers and writers tend towards hyperbole in their insistence on the privacy of letter mail.

Bringing this claim forward to the twenty-first century, one would undoubtedly find that most people agree with the claim that letters are essentially private. Citizens in democratic societies expect that their personal letter mail, email and voice mail are safe from interference by the government or by other parties. While we may not today use modifiers such as “sacred” to describe this sense of privacy, we experience violations of mail privacy as deplorable, even shocking. For example, the 2011 scandal that erupted in the wake of revelations about “phone hacking” by the News of the World revealed a fundamental expectation about the privacy of voice communications. The seminal revelation that sparked the greatest outrage, that the newspaper had listened to and copied voice mails sent to a murdered teenage girl, Milly Dowler, resonates with some of the 1844 claims about letter mail. The fact of her murder was harrowing enough, but the callous invasion of family privacy in this moment of tragedy underscored the fragility of family intimacy created through the dissemination of family information and then the shattering of this intimacy through an invasion of privacy.[13] The relation of privacy to intimacy is discussed below, but it is clear that these voice mails were felt to be deeply private, just as letter mail was in 1844. But what exactly is the field that “privacy” names?

Privacy is a multifaceted concept and situating the Post Office espionage scandal within the history of privacy is complex. Changes in ideas of and practices related to privacy name transformations in fields as diverse as architectural design, social and family life, government policy, and international law. The Post Office espionage scandal arguably arises from a largely unchanged governmental policy meeting a changed definition of what constitutes personal privacy.[14] Such personal privacy rests first of all in a sense that it is the information conveyed in letters (or voice mail or email) that is private, an aspect highlighted in Alan Westin’s definition of privacy: “the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (7). David Vincent, arguing that there are “two broad approaches to the notion of privacy,” names Westin’s as the first—glossing it as “the capacity to decide who knows how much about your life”—and defines the second as “the capacity to withdraw from the gaze or company of other persons and groups” (The Culture of Secrecy 19, 20).[15] This spatial dimension of privacy—the capacity to withdraw—while not an obvious part of the Post Office scandal, does draw attention to the interpersonal and social aspect of privacy. Unless one is a hermit, one is seen by and lives (at least in part) in the company of others. This social check on personal privacy is complicated by, as Westin points out, individual psychology: “the individual’s desire for privacy is never absolute, since participation in society is an equally powerful desire” (7). If one were never to send a letter, one could be sure that no private information would ever be read by anyone, let alone a government agent. But the desire to participate in society, to share information, is a powerful one, and in 1844, as we have seen, letters were an increasingly popular way to do this.

Ariès’s claim that, in the nineteenth century, “Men and women . . . withdraw into the family” to seek privacy thus needs to be qualified in this case by the observation that letters, by their very nature, disseminated information about many things, including the family. Family members themselves could be widely dispersed and letters necessary to share family information. Further, personal privacy could itself be compromised within the domestic sphere. For example, consider the practice of reading letters aloud in a family grouping highlighted in Jane Austen’s 30 November 1814 letter to Fanny Knight. Austen tells Fanny, who had written to her about a possible engagement: “I shall be most glad to hear from you again my dearest Fanny,. . . and write something that may do to be read or told” (Letter 114; 286-7). Part of Fanny’s letter could be withheld for Austen’s private perusal, but “something” must be “read or told” in the family or social group. While Austen’s “something” to be shared implies much more that would not be, letters were and are fundamentally a means for sharing information, whether narrowly or more broadly.

In an information age, then, privacy could evidently not be achieved by withdrawing into the family circle, closing a door, and barring a window.[16] In personal communications such as letters, the strong personal desire to share information is balanced by a desire to enforce limits on the dissemination of that information. Thus, as Patricia Meyer Spacks argues: “the notion of privacy develops from a simple concept about being left alone into a way of condensing ideas about autonomy and integrity” (3).

While this social context for privacy concerns is important, there is another aspect of privacy identified by Spacks that has particular cogency in the 1844 scandal: “Privacy is above all an imaginative category,” she writes, “privacy of the mind and heart . . . depends on particular modes of self-imagining and of imagining the other” (8). It is this imagining of the self and the other that perhaps begins to explain the second major characterisation of letter mail in the 1844 Post Office scandal, that letters contained secrets.

Secrecy: “Family Secrets”

Letters were represented as repositories of family secrets. While similar to the claim that letters are private and equally important in the articulation of a right to privacy, the assertion that letters contain secrets has a specific rhetorical effect, one gauged to increase outrage at the revelation of letter opening.

One of the principal points made by Thomas Duncombe when he presented Mazzini’s petition on 14 June 1844 was that, in allowing letters to be opened, Sir James Graham came to know family secrets. He asks his fellow members of the House of Commons if they would like “their private letters to be opened, and their family secrets copied, and sent to the Secretary of State” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 896). The leading article in the Times on 17 June 1844 used similar language: “No man’s correspondence is safe. No man’s confidence can be deemed secure; the secrets of no family, of no individual, can be guaranteed from reaching the ear of a Cabinet Minister, and, worse than that, of a Minister’s officials.” The leader writer even suggests that “Sir J. Graham must have been studying Vidocq and Fouche,”[17] hinting facetiously that the Home Secretary was a practised hand at spying, even a man who found pleasure in it (“The conversation which took place on Friday” 4). And while Duncombe imagines “family secrets . . . remain[ing] safe in the breast of the Secretary of State” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 897), Lord Denman in the House of Lords on 25 June 1844 offers a suggestive portrait of the disquiet in the breast of Sir James Graham. Knowing a secret may be as bad as having one’s secret known, he implies. Lord Denman asked his fellow peers to imagine “the feelings of such a man as Secretary of State, upon opening a private letter, and becoming acquainted with circumstances of which he would wish to be ignorant, and afterwards meeting the individual in private life with the consciousness that we have in possession secrets which that individual would not wish any third person to know” (“House of Lords” 2). Presumably, Sir James would “wish to be ignorant” of the “secrets” of those who he meets “in private life.”

While privacy and secrecy are clearly related notions—“Their Latin forms, privitus and secretus, are derived from verbs meaning ‘to free from’ and ‘to separate from’” (Vincent, The Culture of Secrecy 20)—they are often utilised to name distinct fields.[18] Sissela Bok, defining secrecy as “intentional concealment,” argues that “secrecy hides far more than what is private” whereas “privacy need not hide” (5, 11). Similarly, Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett claim that “Privacy and secrecy both involve boundaries and the denial of access to others; however, they differ in the moral content of the behavior which is concealed” (43). The implication of both of these distinctions is that “secrets” are linked to the potentially shameful or the immoral and that the private is not.

In the Post Office scandal, there were repeated claims that “family secrets” would become known were the government to intercept letters. What were these secrets? The shameful and scandalous connotation of the word “secrets” is indeed invoked, as highlighted in Punch in 1844: “How can I and Sir James ever meet again?” asks the writer, when “all my most domestic secrets had been rumpled and touzled, and pinched here and pinched there—searched by an English Minister as shuddering modesty is searched at a French custom-house!” (“My Dear Sir James” 3, 2). Yet, however amusing the image of Sir James Graham performing a pat-down might be, it is unlikely that the frequently repeated claim about “family secrets” was meant to imply a belief that most families harbored secret scandals. It would seem rather too bold a generalization for Duncombe or the Times to imply that many letter writers were engaging in immoral behavior and then writing about it. The pressing issue was not the content of the opened letters or the whiff of immoral behavior. Rather, “family secrets” seems to have been a specific way of speaking about privacy concerns.

What Victorian speakers and writers of 1844 included within the category of “secrets” is thus most likely mundane information. As Vincent argues, “the issue of secrecy was in essence not about the substance of concealed knowledge but the right to determine its release” (The Culture of Secrecy 16, emphasis added). Claims about “secrets” were a way of speaking about privacy to achieve a specific rhetorical effect. Consider the parliamentary and newspaper representations, cited above, of the “secrets” that were conveyed in letters. Citizens in 1844 were asked to imagine various scenarios: MPs to picture Sir James Graham knowing their secrets, Times’ readers to see Sir James studying Vidocq and Fouché, the Lords to envisage a Sir James burdened by secrets of which he wished to remain ignorant. These imagined scenarios are powerful evidence of Spacks’s claim that “privacy of the mind and heart . . . depends on particular modes of self-imagining and of imagining the other.” Representations in 1844 call on the reader or auditor to imagine scenes of secret knowledge, to participate in a narrative in which the ordinariness of everyday life is tinctured with the aura of secrecy. Outrage at Post Office espionage in 1844 was real enough, but the claim that letters were private did not seem to be a sufficient expression of this outrage. In order to make vividly real the experience of violated privacy in the letter-opening scandal, these writers and speakers imagine narratives in which secrets and their transmission play a key role. Thus the “family secret” in these stories is nothing so much as an imagined piece of information that stands as a synecdoche for the whole of a violated privacy.

If this definition of secrets in representations of the 1844 Post Office scandal is accepted, then the “secrets” being transmitted in letters include mundane information not just scandalous knowledge. Bok’s claim that “secrecy hides far more than what is private” would not be an adequate gloss on the use of the word “secrets” in the Post Office espionage scandal, because secrets may well be mundane. And of course the mundane must be considered private: as Annabelle Lever argues, “you should be able to keep your diary to yourself . . . even though your descriptions of beautiful sunsets, disappointments in love, hopes for the future are, when looked at objectively, entirely banal” (36).[19]

The use of the word “secrets” to describe the content of letters in 1844 is also suggestive of the integral nature of intimacy to definitions of privacy. Lever argues that we should understand privacy concerns as ones that arise through a combination of three areas—“seclusion and solitude, anonymity and confidentiality, intimacy and domesticity” (4). Letter mail highlights how fragile privacy is: the letter may originate in the “seclusion and solitude” of the domestic sphere; its contents may be redolent of intimacy and confidential communications; but its recipient cannot be anonymous and it passes through the hands of many strangers as it makes its journey from sender to recipient. Letters seem to provide a test case when shaping the scope of privacy concerns because, as the Post Office scandal indicates, however much one would like to picture the seal on a letter as having the strength of a “brick-wall,” it was in fact but a frail impediment to the agents in the employ of the Post Office’s “Inner Room.”

The term “family secrets” thus also gestures towards intimacy as another important feature of the privacy of letter mail. Although Vincent argues that “the issue of secrecy was in essence not about the substance of concealed knowledge,” the information shared in letters mirrors or is part of what Robert S. Gerstein calls “the exclusive sharing among the intimates of things about themselves that no one else knows” (76). Gerstein, arguing that without privacy “intimate relations simply could not exist,” claims: “To allow outsiders to come in and find out every detail of intimacy would therefore be seriously to impoverish the ‘moral capital’ upon which the relationship can draw its sustenance” (76).[20] To cite again the recent notorious case, the voice mails sent to Milly Dowler were not secret but were most certainly intimate, familial and private. Because letter and voice mail are sites of “exclusive sharing” between intimates, Post Office espionage and voice-mail hacking were experienced as an impoverishment of the “moral capital” of the intimate relationship. In 1844, “family secrets” seems to have been a way of naming this information shared among intimates.

The desirability of the privacy of correspondence was thus a hallmark of representations of letters during the 1844 Post Office espionage scandal. The Home Secretary’s claim that not only was he free to issue warrants to read and copy letters sent by post but also that it “was not for the public good to pry or inquire into the particular causes” of such warrants was hotly contested. It is true that parliamentary debates, newspaper editorials, and letters to the editor did not speak about a specific right to privacy, about privacy as a legal principle or as a human right. However, the use of the words “private” and “secret” to describe letters and their contents helped limn the outlines of the field named by the word “privacy.” The term “secrets” in particular gave voice to the outrage that the espionage scandal generated, prompting readers and auditors to imagine their own intimate family life being violated by secret government action. The term is also suggestive of the role of letters in creating and maintaining the fragile ground upon which trust and intimacy are founded. Descriptions of letters as private and of letters as containing secrets thus allow us a glimpse into fears about the real human relationships that could be damaged by the reading of one’s mail.

Representations of letters in the wake of revelations about letter opening helped shape the parameters of what today regulates our own sense of reasonable expectations of personal privacy in personal communications. The Post Office espionage scandal makes clear that private communication between and among citizens was becoming an important right in a nascent democracy.

Kate Lawson is Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. She is the editor of the Broadview edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and co-author of The Marked Body: Domestic Violence in Mid-Nineteenth Century Literature (SUNY 2002).

HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)

Lawson, Kate. “Personal Privacy, Letter Mail, and the Post Office Espionage Scandal, 1844.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].

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ENDNOTES

[1] For a detailed account of the scandal, consult Marjorie Stone’s “On the Post Office Espionage Scandal.” See also F. B. Smith and A. P. Donajgrodzki.

[2] Neumann had also been in direct contact with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Aberdeen. Smith places most of the responsibility for the letter-opening on Graham. In contrast, Donajgrodzki argues that “at the factual level, . . . the case against Graham was virtually non-existent, whereas Aberdeen’s behaviour might have provided genuine grounds for criticism”; however, “a universal dislike of Graham” caused many to blame him (117, 97). J. T. Ward gives a sympathetic account of Graham’s actions, saying that Graham had “tried to act fairly” but when he used “a traditional power [i.e. letter opening] which [the Whig] ministry had freely employed,” he was pilloried in the Whig press and “suffered personally” in the episode (209-10). Stone largely agrees with Smith, but adds: “However one apportions ministerial responsibility, the end result was that . . . the government was now . . . widely accused of collusion with the Austrian empire and the affiliated despotic Neapolitan government” (n. pag.).

[3] The Times and the Morning Chronicle both reported extensively on the scandal, including the parliamentary debates and the reports of the secret committees. The Morning Chronicle was particularly caught up with the international implications of the letter opening. For example, in addition to a lengthy letter from Mazzini himself (“Post-Office Spying,” 8 Feb. 1845), the Chronicle published a letter on 2 July 1844 stating that “Europe will be startled at the avowal, on the part of government, that they can open and examine letters at their will and pleasure” (“Sir James Graham and Post-Office Espionage”) and another on 26 February 1845 expressing outrage that “[t]he contents of private letters addressed to a foreigner, who sought refuge on our shores, have been communicated to foreign states” (“Post Office Espionage”). Duncombe’s new allegations included a second petition alleging letter opening, from Polish exile Charles Stolzman, and a claim that information passed on by the British to the Austrians had resulted in the arrest of fifty to sixty Italians (Smith 195, 196).

[4] For more detailed accounts of the ensuing events, see Stone, Smith 195-201, Masetti 210-12, and Porter, Plots and Paranoia 77-78.

[5] Vincent does note that government surveillance continued until the end of Chartism in 1848, and also argues that, while espionage went out of fashion, the British government began to exercise a far greater control of information within government, demanding, for instance, that civil servants be sworn to secrecy (“The Origins of Public Secrecy in Britain” 230n, 231). Also see Porter, The Origins of the Vigilant State 1-18.

[6] Porter writes that in the 1790s, “the Post Office’s espionage functions may have been so well known . . . that it effectively neutralized them” (Plots and Paranoia 30). He also points out that the “Royal Mail” was originally a private form of communication, “a means of transmitting the king’s letters” and when Charles 1 opened the mail to general use, the king (and later Parliament) retained “the right to scrutinize the mails” (Plots and Paranoia 16).

[7] Welsh makes the general point that in creating a public good, such as the Penny Post, the government became particularly liable for any shortcomings of that public good, because “the public extension of a service attenuates personal trust and thus requires still finer bureaucratic tuning to make up for the loss” (54).

[8] The “communal value” of letter mail stemmed in part from the trust placed in by more and more people, by the masses. See Peter Simonson, who redefines the term “mass communication” to include “communication with, among, from, or to the masses”; it is “mass” communication in the sense that it is one “in which the majority of the population participates, and which therefore carries a prima facie social and—from democratic and certain religious perspectives—political and moral significance” (23). The Post Office was arguably coming to play a role in such a configuration of mass communication in 1844, and because social, political and moral value had accrued to the institution, a violation of that value was shocking.

[9] Characterising England as the “birthplace of privacy,” Philippe Ariès includes private letters—along with diaries, and autobiographies—as one of his six “Measures of Privacy” that characterise the shifting scope of privacy in the “The Evolution of the Modern Age” (5, 4, 2).

[10] It was not only “family secrets” that were in jeopardy, Duncombe adds, for “in a commercial country like this, all the letters which might affect commercial interests, and contain commercial secrets” could be opened “whenever the Ministers thought proper” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 898).

[11] Bentham suggests that the word “inspection” be used when the practices in question tend towards “the maintenance of a system of police, for the preservation of the public tranquillity, and the execution of good laws” (n. pag.).

[12] See Carl J. Friedrich, who associates “the idea of sacredness of privacy . . . with the growth of individualism” (115).

[13] Investigations into phone hacking by the News of the World and into the behaviour of senior managers of News International were conducted by the Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport (“News International and Phone-hacking”) and by a judicial inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Henry Leveson (13 July 2011 – 29 Nov. 2012). Stone discusses three ways in which twenty-first century scandals recall elements of the 1844 Post Office espionage case: how contemporary “secret state surveillance of private citizens,” as in the case of Maher Arar, resembles British collusion with the Austrians in 1844; how Julian Assange of Wikileaks resembles Mazzini; and how the News of the World phone-hacking scandal created a similar “public outrage and . . . sense of violated privacy” (Stone n. pag.).

[14] On 14 June 1844, in response to Duncombe’s claim that letter opening was “repugnant to every principle of the British constitution” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 892), Sir James Graham claimed the practice was both legal and of long standing. From the time of Queen Anne and re-affirmed in 1837, he argued, the “power existed in the hands of the Principal Secretary of State, to detain and open letters passing through the Post Office” and “that this authority was vested in the responsible Officers of the Crown and intrusted to them for the public safety” (“Opening Letters—Post Office” 893). Even the Earl of Haddington, who proclaimed the sacredness of letters, admitted that the issuing of warrants for letter-opening was “a power which not only had always existed in the country, but which must necessarily exist in every country having any Government at all” (“House of Lords” 2).

[15] This second definition, Vincent notes, derives from American Judge Thomas Cooley’s 1888 statement regarding the right “to be let alone” (qtd. in Warren and Brandeis, 195).

[16] The OED’s first definition of “privacy”—“The state or condition of being alone, undisturbed, or free from public attention, as a matter of choice or right; seclusion; freedom from interference or intrusion”—includes this citation: 1814. J. Campbell Rep. Cases King’s Bench III. 81: “Though the defendant might not object to a small window looking into his yard, a larger one might be very inconvenient to him, by disturbing his privacy, and enabling people to come through to trespass upon his property.”

[17] Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1857), famous French criminal and later detective; Joseph Fouché (1759-1820), Minster of Police under Napoleon.

[18] Vincent argues that, while the words secrecy and privacy have distinct uses, “if we step back from the polemics and consider each term separately, their identities start to blur” (19). Mary Poovey uses “private” to refer to information and “secret” to the mode of concealment; thus, writing about the history of household account books, she states that “written accounts were initially intended to be secret and to keep secret what was most private—knowledge about a man’s family in the broadest sense of this term” (34).

[19] On this point, Lever references Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis’s influential essay, “The Right to Privacy,” which states: “Neither does the existence of the right [to privacy] depend upon the nature or value of the thought or emotions, nor upon the excellence of the means of expression. The same protection is accorded to a casual letter or an entry in a diary and to the most valuable poem or essay, to a botch or daub and to a masterpiece. In every such case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public” (199) The conception of a specific “Right to Privacy” is frequently dated to 1890 when Warren and Brandeis published this essay in The Harvard Law Review.

[20] See also Adam D. Moore, who argues there can be no privacy without “friendship, intimacy, and love” creating a space free from the gaze of others (223), and chapter 9 of Charles Fried, An Anatomy of Values: Problems of Personal and Social Choice.