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Foreign Interference in American Elections: the Founders’ View

A brief history, in light of Donald Trump’s most recent remarks.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Michael Vadon/Flickr)

Donald Trump’s imploring of Russian spies to hack Hillary Clinton’s e-mails is surely a first in American politics. But deep concern about foreign interference in our political system can be traced back to the very beginning of our republic.

In 2009, Zephyr Teachout — an assistant professor of law at Fordham University, and a Democratic candidate for congress in the current election — wrote a fascinating essay in the Berkeley Journal of International Law in which she traced the history of foreign involvement in American elections, and warned that avenues for such interference are rapidly increasing in the digital age.

She writes that James Madison’s notes on the 1787 Constitutional Convention show that “The Constitutions’ founders were intensely concerned about the prospects of foreign involvement in American politics.”

Delegate Elbridge Gerry is paraphrased by Madison as declaring: “Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them. Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us, and insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes.”

Madison also recorded the similar warnings of another influential delegate: Alexander Hamilton (of Broadway musical fame). “Foreign powers also will not be idle spectators,” Hamilton said. “They will interpose, the confusion will increase, and a dissolution of the Union will ensue.’”

“These Constitutional fears presaged the post-Constitutional panic about foreign influence that permeated the early years of the new country,” Teachout adds. “The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789 were grounded in real fears that European powers — France, in particular — would conspire, or were conspiring, to undermine the new nation.”

They, of course, led to the restriction of immigrants’ rights—another theme that sounds awfully familiar to those who have been following this election.

While Teachout’s essay does not address the new threat of cyber-espionage, the conclusion she draws from her findings is a sound one: “The best way to ensure that we are self-governing may be to figure out ways, collectively, to keep ourselves generally educated and aware, so that election-time persuasion efforts have less impact.”

Especially those that originate overseas.