Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The newspaper leak scandal that rocked Washington – in 1848

February 17, 2017 by Scott Bomboy


A newspaper reporter stuns Washington by printing leaked confidential documents of national importance. The reporter is taken into custody and he refuses to reveal his government source.

James Buchanan, then Secretary of State, and possible leaker?

This seems like a story that could happen in 2017, or in recent media leak scandals involving the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, or the Valerie Plame incident. But on March 26, 1848, newspaper reporter John Nugent was taken into custody after he reported details of a secret treaty made between the United States and Mexico to end the armed conflict between those two countries.

Nugent had written stories for the New York Herald that revealed the United States would acquire California and New Mexico in the treaty, the terms of which had been delivered to Washington by courier and was under secret deliberations in the Senate.  Nugent was also a critic of President James K. Polk and a supporter of Secretary of State James Buchanan.

The United States Senate ordered that its sergeant-at-arms take Nugent into custody for questioning. In prior years, the Senate battled leaks of confidential proceedings and documents, and at one point, it barred a newspaper from its press gallery for leaking details of a boundary settlement.

Nugent had also reported that Senators leaked information to the press, as needed, on a regular basis.  "Those Senators who most strenuously advocate the system of closed doors, are always the least economical of the Senate secrets,” Nugent wrote in the Herald. In his 2009 book, “Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents,” Historian Emeritus of the United States Senate Donald A. Ritchie said the Herald inflamed the situation by starting to publish private correspondence between President Polk and the Senate.

When Nugent was asked by the Senate to reveal his source, he only said that the source was not a member of the Senate or a Senate officer. The committee interviewing Nugent said the reporter was in contempt of the Senate and ordered Nugent confined to a Senate private meeting room during the day; he went to the sergeant-of-arms’ home at night to eat and sleep.

During the following month, Nugent didn't reveal his source and he kept writing his newspaper reports while in custody. The Herald published the names of Senate sources that had leaked other information to newspapers, including Daniel Webster and Lewis Cass.

Nugent also appealed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court, where a federal judge refused to intervene. In Ex Parte Nugent, the judge said that, “the court is unanimously of opinion that the Senate of the United States has power, when acting in a case within its jurisdiction, to punish all contempts of its authority.” The stalemate ended when the Senate voted to release Nugent for alleged health reasons.

So who was Nugent’s source? There is considerable speculation that Secretary of State Buchanan might have been the person who gave Nugent the treaty. A decade later, President Buchanan appointed Nugent as a special agent to British Columbia.

But another possibility was mentioned by a House member from Tennessee, future President Andrew Johnson. In a letter back home, Johnson mentioned that James Wescott, a Senator from Florida, was a frequent source of confidential information to Nugent and the Herald.

In 1889, writer James O’Meara in Overland Monthly magazine implicated both figures, saying Nugent, Buchanan and Wescott “alone knew the means whereby the protocol” was published in the Herald.

As recounted in his diary, President Polk had his own suspicions. Polk summoned Buchanan to the White House, where Buchanan denied he provided the treaty to Nugent and that all copies of the treaty were accounted for.  Polk then expressed his concerns about the amount of time Buchanan gave to Nugent, the reporter who frequently criticized Polk. Buchanan then blamed Wescott, who he thought was capable of selling a copy of the treaty “for two dollars.”

“I expressed my contempt for Nugent and all the other hired letter writers at Washington, regarding them, as I did, as employees wholly destitute of principle,” Polk recounted. Later, Polk met with Senator Edward Hannegan, who believed Buchanan’s State Department leaked the documents to Nugent and the Herald. There apparently is no known public record of Nugent revealing his source.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

Recent Historical Constitution Daily Stories

On this day: A tied presidential election ends in the Washington

50 interesting facts about Abraham Lincoln’s life

How a national tragedy led to the 25th amendment

Sign up for our email newsletter