“Debating State Secrecy during the American Revolution,” MRSEAH with Notre Dame’s Katlyn Carter


To kick off the Spring 2020 run of the Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History, participants will travel to St. Louis on February 7 to discuss Notre Dame historian Katlyn Carter’s “Piercing the Impenetrable Darkness: Debating State Secrecy during the American Revolution,” a chapter from her larger book project, Houses of Glass: Secrecy, Transparency, and the Birth of Representative Democracy, under contract with Yale University Press (see chapter and book abstract below). Parties interested in attending should contact Thomas Kane, KaneTC@missouri.edu, for more information. Prof. Jeff Pasley will serve as our interlocutor for the night, and a copy of the paper to be discussed can be downloaded here.


Covering the American War of Independence, the first chapter of my book focuses on the evolution of political representation through the practices of American institutions with regard to secrecy and transparency. The narrative is driven by a leak from the Continental Congress in 1779, at the height of the war, which led to debates about whether the body should open its doors to the public. Congress worked with extensive measures to maintain secrecy, rooted in traditional English parliamentary practices and military necessity. After explaining the precedent and practices of Congress, the chapter turns to the emerging critique of secrecy during the war and afterward. If the Congress was to become a permanent representative body, many began to argue that it must work in public. As newly independent states began to promulgate constitutions, many included provisions for transparency in legislatures. The chapter traces the emergence of divides over the use of secrecy and extent of transparency in newly created governments. It also links new attitudes about secrecy and calls for publicity to reform movements in England in the 1770s and ‘80s, which were making similar arguments simultaneously.

This chapter comes from my larger book project, Houses of Glass: Secrecy, Transparency, and the Birth of Representative Democracy, which is under contract with Yale University Press. The book traces a disjuncture between the rhetorical centrality of transparency to representative democracy and the prominent use of secrecy in its practical application. It uncovers the way in which transparency came to be considered fundamental to representative democracy in the Age of Revolutions (circa 1770-1800). But it goes on to show how, in practice, this belief was at odds with the reality that secrecy was essential to the establishment of representative governments in both the United States and France. The book thus uncovers a paradox at the heart of modern representative democracy: at its origin, its legitimacy and stability depended upon a degree of secrecy that was simultaneously deemed anathema to very type of government it was bolstering.

Katlyn Carter is a political and intellectual historian of the eighteenth-century Atlantic World, specializing in the American and French Revolutions. Her research focuses on the origins of modern representative democracy through the study of political practices and institutions. Her first book, Houses of Glass: Secrecy, Transparency, and the Birth of Representative Democracy (under contract, Yale University Press) explores how decisions and debates about the place of secrecy in politics during the Age of Revolutions shaped both the conceptual evolution and practical implementation of representative democracy. She has published a journal article in French History and has another forthcoming in the Journal of the Early Republic, along with numerous op-eds in The Washington Post, TIME, and the Age of Revolutions blog, where she is also an editor. Currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame, she earned her Ph.D. from Princeton University in 2017.