By Frederick S. Lane
A sweeping tale of the suitable to privateness because it sped alongside colonial postal routes, telegraph wires, and today’s fiber-optic cables on a collision path with presidents and programmers, librarians and letter-writers.
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Additional resources for American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right
This point was driven home repeatedly during the Civil War, when both sides engaged in extensive wiretapping of telegraph lines and routinely sent false messages to disrupt troop movements and sow confusion. The American military even set up a parallel telegraph system in an effort to secure its communications, and telegrams became such an integral part of the conduct of the war that President Lincoln often spent hours or even days in the Army Telegraph Office in Washington. Lincoln’s visits and complete fascination with the telegraph were later chronicled by the office’s manager, David Homer Bates, in a lengthy book, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office (1907).
The criticisms of epistolary curmudgeons notwithstanding, Americans demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm for the postcard. S. Post Office offered concrete evidence of just how popular postcards had become: for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, its postal carriers delivered 677,777,798 postcards—at a time when the entire population of the United States was less than 90 million. The postcard phenomenon convincingly demonstrated that from the start, Americans were willing to give up a certain amount of privacy in exchange for the fun and convenience of using the cards.
Similarly, there was no visible public outcry over the peremptory seizure and silencing of two New York newspapers and a major telegraph company in May 1864 for their role in the publication of a proclamation falsely attributed to President Lincoln. The seeming public indifference to the invasions of telegram privacy was due largely to the deference typically given to the government in time of war. There is a general consensus that when an armed conflict is occurring, the niceties of constitutional law are not necessarily observed.