March 26, 1848
The Senate Arrests a Reporter
On March 26, 1848, the Senate arrested a journalist and imprisoned him in a Capitol committee room. This unusual event occurred during one of the most turbulent decades in American history. Throughout the 1840s, territorial disputes with Mexico over the Republic of Texas, and with Great Britain over Oregon, inflamed the Senate's proceedings. Out of this agitation emerged a question that the framers of the Constitution, 60 years earlier, thought they had answered affirmatively: Could the Senate keep a secret?
By the 1840s, many political observers believed the framers had been overly optimistic. In 1844, the Senate censured a member for releasing confidential treaty documents to a newspaper. Two years later, senators investigated the Washington Daily Times for unauthorized publication of the Oregon boundary settlement. When the reporter willingly identified his sources, including a Senate doorkeeper, the accused individuals heatedly swore to their innocence. Tired of this fingerpointing, the Senate punished the Times by banning its reporters from the press gallery. The last straw fell in March 1848, when the New York Herald published the secret treaty ending the war with Mexico.
Denying that Secretary of State James Buchanan (pictured) leaked the document, President James Polk guessed that the culprit must be a senator. John Nugent, the reporter who prepared the treaty story for the Herald, added weight to the president's theory by observing that the best leakers were those same senators who most strongly defended the Senate's practice of considering treaties behind closed doors.
Under questioning, Nugent refused to disclose his sources to Senate investigators, saying only that in this instance they were neither senators nor Senate officers. The frustrated investigating committee thereupon ordered him to be arrested and confined to one of the Senate's committee rooms. As the Herald retaliated by publishing the names of the Senate's most cooperative leakers, Nugent spent his captivity in comfort, receiving a doubled salary while issuing his regular columns under the dateline "Custody of the Sergeant at Arms." Each evening he accompanied the sergeant at arms to that officer's home for a good meal and a comfortable night's sleep. From time to time, the full Senate summoned Nugent to answer questions, but always without success. After a month, the Senate realized the futility of further incarceration and released its prisoner on the face-saving grounds of protecting his health. Who actually leaked the treaty? The historical evidence points to Secretary of State Buchanan.
Ritchie, Donald A. Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.