Bradley Smith, a member of the Federal Election Commission from 2000 to 2005, is chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics.
If you’ve seen the critically acclaimed Broadway musical “Hamilton,” then you’ve heard the song “Farmer Refuted.” It’s based on a letter a young Alexander Hamilton wrote — he was barely 20 — offering a passionate defense of individual liberty and the brewing American Revolution. Yet he did not sign it under his own name, instead writing as “a sincere friend of America.”
This overlooked fact deserves greater attention. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical has renewed Americans’ appreciation of Hamilton, one of our nation’s most dynamic founders. Never before have his life and views, from his defense of individual rights to his opposition to slavery, been so celebrated. But Hamilton’s frequent use of anonymous speech has received scant attention, even though it has a significant bearing on American politics today.
Anonymous speech was a frequent feature of Hamilton’s life — and of the American founding overall. Arguably the single most influential piece leading to American independence was “Common Sense,” the pamphlet penned by Thomas Paine anonymously. Just over a decade later, Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay co-wrote the Federalist Papers as “Publius.”
These were not unconnected or uncommon occurrences. The United States was built in large part on the exchange of ideas circulated anonymously. In the years before the Declaration of Independence, anonymous speech was one of the greatest weapons the colonists used against the tyrant King George III. As for the Constitution, had Publius and others not anonymously dialogued in newspapers about the equally revolutionary document, it might never have been adopted, nor would have the subsequent Bill of Rights with its First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
The bottom line is that it is highly probable that the United States would not even exist without anonymous speech. Sadly, we have forgotten this lesson somewhere in the intervening years. Today, anonymous speech is too often demonized, derided as “dark,” or otherwise dismissed for its lack of “transparency.”
Although there are many examples, the brunt of these attacks centers on the anonymous speech used by nonprofit organizations on both the right and the left. These groups reach out to the public with messages on a wide number of issues, and they can be supported by individuals, corporations, unions and more. The nationwide campaign against anonymous speech is, by and large, a campaign to force these supporters’ identities into the open.
That was one impetus behind the Senate’s 2014 push for a constitutional amendment that would have given Congress unprecedented authority to regulate — and therefore ban — speech that touches on politics. Although the measure was defeated, it still received the support of 54 senators and the president. At the federal level, the Federal Election Commission has issued or debated several rulings designed to roll back anonymity in political speech.
The threats are even more numerous at the state level. In recent years, elected officials in New York and California have demanded that nonprofits hand over lists of their supporters to government officials. In other states, legislative proposals or proposed ballot initiatives would force disclosure of all supporters to nonprofit organizations that talk about political officeholders and issues.
No matter what form they take, these efforts would curtail the very speech that Hamilton used so effectively. Political speech is a prerequisite for a free and democratic society. In many ways, anonymous political speech may be the most important form of speech we have. It enables all of us to air our opinions, doubts and thoughts without fear of retaliation from hostile members of the community, from employers or from the government itself.
Some opponents of anonymous political speech claim it enables businesses and individuals to advocate in secret for government policies that benefit themselves. But an idea aired in the public forum — whether it’s suggested by an individual, nonprofit or business — doesn’t mandate an action. It asks people to evaluate the merits of the argument and to decide for themselves if the proposed change would advance society. As then-Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission in 1995, “ ‘the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.’ . . . Don’t underestimate the common man. People are intelligent enough to evaluate the source of an anonymous writing.” Perhaps we should have more faith that voters — and reporters — are smart enough to smell a rat.
When anonymous speech flourishes, ideas that are unpopular, controversial and revolutionary have a much better chance of finding their way into the public square and gaining wider public acceptance. Absent anonymous speech, America’s political discourse would become less vibrant, more impoverished. Hamilton proved it.