Thomas Jefferson's Codes and Ciphers: II (1790-1803)

Secretary of State (1790-1793)

Thomas Jefferson had been stationed in Paris as a minister for five years when, in October 1789, he sailed for America on leave of absence granted in June. It happened to be just after the outbreak of the French Revolution, which would lead to a drastic change of the political situation in Europe.

In the spring of that year, George Washington was elected the first President of the United States under the Constitution adopted in 1788. Arriving at the American coast in late November, Jefferson received a letter from the President on his journey to his home in Monticello. The letter told him that he was chosen as the new Secretary of State (renamed from Secretary of Foreign Affairs). He was sworn in in March 1790 and served till the end of 1793.

Jefferson had intended only a temporary visit to America. Still less had he expected a position in the government when he left Paris. In July 1790, his friend James Monroe thought of writing to him in their code (THE=812 / PTJ Code No. 9 / WE018; see here) about personal matters of importance but changed his mind, thinking Jefferson might not have brought the code with him. (Monroe to Jefferson, 3 July 1790, 18 July 1790)

William Short

Jefferson left his private secretary, William Short, in Paris. Short had been close to Jefferson from early years. Back in June 1781, during the Revolutionary War, Short even accompanied Jefferson's family when the family barely escaped from a British detachment that raided Charlottesville, where the Virginia legislature was about to meet under Governor Jefferson and a number of prominent patriots were captured. In 1784, Jefferson used a Lovell-type polyalphabetic cipher with Short (PTJ Code No.4 / WE062; see here).

When Jefferson was sent to Paris in 1784, Short joined him in November and delivered Monroe's second cipher (PTJ Code No.6 / WE020) to him (see here). Short became Jefferson's private secretary.

When he sent Short to John Adams in London, Jefferson said Adams could write confidential information without cipher in letters trusted in the hands of Short.

Mr. Short furnishing so safe a conveyance that the trouble of the cypher may be dispensed with, I will thank you for such details of what has passed, as may not be too troublesome to you.
Jefferson to John Adams, 28 July 1785

Such was the trust Jefferson had in Short that he was left as chargé d'affaires in Paris when Jefferson left for America in 1789. Soon after Jefferson left Paris, Short used code in writing about suspected intrigues of the Duke of Orleans in his letter of 9 October 1789. (Weber p.122) Apparently, Short used in his letter to Jefferson the Barclay-Lamb code (THE=1196 / PTJ Code No.11; see here) found in Jefferson's office in Paris. But Jefferson did not have the key in New York (where the government was then seated).

Observe that we have not the cypher you have used in your letters. I suppose it to be that established with Mr. Barclay, & have sent to Philadelphia for it. I have used above, that established between the foreign affairs & myself which you will find in a drawer for my paper press and will keep in use with me.
Jefferson to Short, 6 April 1790

To decode Short's letter, Jefferson probably requested the code from Thomas Barclay himself, who was then visiting Philadelphia and wrote of enclosing the cipher in his letter of 22 April 1790. (PTJ)

Jefferson, on his part, used THE=224 (PTJ Code No.10; see here) in his letters of 6 April and 27 April, to which he had access in his office in New York. THE=224 was the code used between John Jay, his predecessor as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and Jefferson himself stationed in Paris.

It took Short two days for finding the key and it caused him not a little embarrassment. A commission as chargé d'affaires enclosed in Jefferson's letter made him think that his cherished wish to be a minister succeeding Jefferson had been granted and he announced the news to his acquaintances after reading only uncoded portions of the letter. The encoded portion of Jefferson's letters, however, made it clear that Short would not be his successor.

Short was chagrined and the affair brought a chill in the relationship between him and his mentor.

You will easily percieve that I had not yet read the cypher of your two letters. I remained in this happy ignorance for two days, occasioned by the difficulty of opening your paper press, & afterwards of finding the cypher to which you refer, & which instead of being there was among my own papers, as you had given it to me with another for Carmichael the day before you left this place. During these two days however the news of my appointment had spread itself among most of my acquaintance, & I had recieved the compliments of a great many of them. ... On the third day I found the key of the cypher & you may judge of my situation in collecting word by word the information that the commission which I had recieved was only on account of my former appointment, that it was decided to appoint a minister to this court, & that it would be from among the veterans in office.
Short to Jefferson, 14 June 1790

THE=224 was used between them thereafter. In the beginning of 1792, choice of minister fell on Gouverneur Morris and Short was appointed as minister to the Netherlands. Jefferson instructed him to continue to use the same code.

I have the pleasure to inform you that the President of the United States has appointed you minister resident for the United States, at the Hague.
You will keep the cypher we have heretofore used.
Jefferson to William Short, 23 January 1792

Carmichael and Short (Spain)

In Spain, William Carmichael was resident as chargé d'affaires. In his correspondence with Carmichael, Jefferson continued to use THE=1196 (PTJ Code No.11), the Barclay-Lamb code, which had been delivered to Carmichael after more than two years of frustration during Jefferson's residence in Paris (see here).

In March 1792, Carmichael and Short were appointed joint commissioners to negotiate a treaty with Spain. Short arrived in Madrid in February 1793.

Jefferson's letter to the Spanish commissioners dated 23 March 1793 was entirely written in Short's code (THE=224): "It is intimated to us, in such a way as to attract our attention, that France means to send a strong force early this spring to offer independence to the Spanish American colonies, beginning with those on the Missisipi, & that she will not object to the receiving those on the East side into our confederation...."

Jefferson continued to use this code with Short and he used it as late as 13 November 1793, just before his resignation at the end of 1793.

David Humphreys (Portugal)

David Humphreys, Washington's trusted aid-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, was sent to Portugal. He was a secretary to Jefferson in Paris and sent to John Adams in London in 1785 for negotiations with Great Britain and Portugal.

Before officially nominated minister in Lisbon (Jefferson to Humphreys, 15 March 1791), he was sent to Europe as a secret agent. Jefferson's letter of 11 August 1790 told him that he was trusted with several confidential matters in London, Lisbon, and Madrid, reminding him that "it will be best that you avoid all suspicion of being on any public business".

Humphreys used THE=994 code to report on the Spanish government to Jefferson on 3 and 15 of January 1791. This is the code used between John Adams, minister in London from 1785 to 1788, and Jefferson then in Paris (PTJ Code No.8; see here).

On 16 February 1791, Humphreys sent an unofficial letter to Washington, using THE=994, with notes "To be decyphered with Mr. Jefferson's Key to my Cypher." (George Washington Papers) Jefferson's use of THE=994 code in this channel is seen in his letter of 11 April 1791. (Thomas Jefferson Papers)

In 1796 Humphreys was appointed minister to Spain. During his term (1797-1801), he sent ten messages to the Secretary of State in THE=994 (Weber p.152).

Gouverneur Morris (France)

During his secretaryship, it fell on Jefferson to provide code to US ministers abroad.

In 1792, Gouverneur Morris was chosen as US minister in France and the chargé d'affaires, Short, was transferred to the Hague. It took many months, however, for Jefferson to send code to Gouverneur Morris.

I have the pleasure to inform you, that the President of the United States has appointed you Minister Plenipotentiary for the United States, at the Court of France.
You will receive herewith your commission, a letter of credence for the King, sealed, and a copy of it open for your own satisfaction, as also a cypher, to be used on proper occasions in correspondence between us.
Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 23 January 1792

Gouverneur Morris, however, found the cipher was not enclosed.

I had the honor to receive this morning your favor of the twenty-third of January, with its enclosures, excepting the cypher which seems accidentally to have been omitted in making up your despatches, or perhaps it has been put by mistake in the letters directed to Mr Short, which at Mr Johnson's request I have taken charge of.
Gouverneur Morris to Jefferson, 6 April 1792

Actually, Jefferson was trying to find a trustworthy bearer of the code.

A cypher is ready for you, but cannot be sent till we can find a trusty passenger going to Paris.
Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 10 May 1792
Your cypher has not been sent hitherto, because it required a most confidential channel of conveyance. It is now committed to Mr. Pinckney, ...
Jefferson to Gouverneur Morris, 16 June 1792

Thomas Pinckney (England)

Thomas Pinckney, who was entrusted with the code for Morris, was himself appointed minster in London (1792-1796).

I have already had the honour of delivering to you your commission as Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States at the court of London....
You are furnished with a cypher for greater secrecy of communication.
Jefferson to Pinckney, 11 June 1792

Pinckney used THE=663 code in his letter to Jefferson, Secretary of State, (27 November 1793 (Thomas Jefferson Papers)) and President Washington (25 February 1795 (George Washington Papers)).

John Paul Jones (Algiers)

Thomas Pinckney was also a bearer of a code to John Paul Jones.

The President of the United States having thought proper to appoint you commissioner for treating with the Dey and government of Algiers, on the subjects of peace, and ransom of our captives, I have the honour to inclose you the commissions, of which Mr. Thomas Pinckney, now on his way to London as our Minister there, will be the bearer....
We shall be anxious to know as soon and as often as possible, your prospects in these negotiations. You will receive herewith a cypher, which will enable you to make them with safety. London and Lisbon (where Colonel Humphreys will forward my letters) will be the safest and best ports of communication.
Jefferson to John Paul Jones, 1 June 1792

With Jones, Jefferson had once communicated with code. A letter from Jones to Jefferson, written partly in code, shows they shared a code as of 1788 (PTJ Code No.12).

The Cyphers in the Original Letters are all corrected in the Copys, and the Numbers that were at first erronious, are now underlined.
John Paul Jones to Jefferson, 20 March 1788

Thomas Barclay (Morocco)

While Jones were sent to Algiers, Barclay was trusted with the task of reconfirming a treaty with Morocco, which he had successfully negotiated some years before.

You are appointed by the President of the United States to go to the Morocco for the purpose of obtaining from the new Emperor, a recognition of our treaty with his father....
With your commission, you will receive a letter to the Emperor of Morocco, a cypher, and a letter to Colonel Humphreys.
Jefferson to Barclay, 13 May 1791

According to Weber, the code assigned to Barclay was a 660-element code prepared on a printed code sheet (WE021). From its vocabulary, this was made on the same template as those Robert Morris provided John Jay and Benjamin Franklin in 1781 (see here).

Barclay wrote a report on 27 December 1792, partially transcribed in code, but he died in a month after that (Weber p.124). Judging from the notes to this letter by the editors of Papers of Thomas Jefferson, the code appears to be different from WE021. That is, keyed to the word "Gibraltar" in the deciphered text, there is a note "this word according to the Cyphers given by Mr. Barclay would read thus Gi(107) war(1452) l(1509) ta(1022) r(872)" by the hand of George Taylor, chief clerk of the office of Secretary of State, who undertook deciphering of this letter.

Political Strife and Jefferson's Resignation

The first term of Washington's presidency saw formation of opposing political parties. Supporters of the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, grew into the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans rallied around Jefferson and Madison to oppose them. As the conflict intensified in Europe, the two parties were further divided in foreign policies. Democratic Republicans favored neutral relationship with both England and France. (While Jefferson had connections with the French court, the French Revolution did not change his attachment to France as a nation.) Hamilton saw close relation with England essential for the subsistence of America.

In the margin of a letter to Short on 28 July 1791, Jefferson wrote a sharp remark, entirely in code, about the Hamiltonian foreign policy. It read "Adams, Jay, Hamilton, Knox. Many of the Cincinnati. The second says nothing. The third is open. Both are dangerous. They pant after union with England as the power which is to support their projects, and are most determined Anti-gallicans. It is prognosticated that our republic is to end with the President's life. But I believe they will find themselves all head and no body."

In the presidential election of 1792, Jefferson was one of those who persuaded the reluctant Washington to run for the second term. Washington was the only person acceptable to both of the opposing factions.

In 1793, the US government decided to request recall of a newly arrived French ambassador, Citizen Genet, whose conduct might involve America in the French Revolutionary War. While Jefferson and Hamilton agreed that America should not be involved, Jefferson was against Hamilton's hardline attitude toward France. In writing about the affair in a letter to Madison dated 3 August 1793, Jefferson resumed use of an old code (THE=812 / PTJ Code No. 9 / WE018; see here; Thomas Jefferson Papers, James Madison Papers). Madison, however, did not have the key at hand.

Yours of Aug. 3 has just come to hand. ... I am extremely mortified, in looking for the key to the cypher, to find that I left it in Philad. You must therefore repeat any thing that may be of use still to be known....
Madison to Jefferson, 11 August 1793

Thus, Jefferson had to send necessary keys to Madison.

I am mortified at your not having your cypher. I now send the key of the numbers in mine of the 3rd. this with my letter of the 11th. by post & another of the same date by Davy Randolph who will be at Monticello the last week of this month will put you in possession of the state of things to that date.
Jefferson to Madison, 18 August 1793

The Genet Affair was the last straw to decide Jefferson's mind to resign. At Washington's request Jefferson continued in the post for the time until he finally resigned on 31 December 1793.

Retirement (1794-1796)

Private Code with James Monroe (France)

During his retirement in Monticello, Jefferson was informed of political developments from his friends. When his friend James Monroe was appointed as minister to France (1794-1796) as a successor to Gouverneur Morris (1792-1794), he wrote to Jefferson from Philadelphia and asked him to send their code for their correspondence.

I feel extremely anxious upon the subject of a cypher. Our former one is in a small writing desk at my house, can you get & send it after me in case I do not see you before I sail?
Monroe to Jefferson, 6 June 1794

Monroe wrote from Baltimore:

The urgent pressure of the Executive for my immediate departure has deprived me of the pleasure of seeing you before I sailed. I sincerely regret this for many reasons but we cannot controul impossibilities. Will you forward me a cypher & lettrs for yr. friends remaining in Paris to the care of Mr. R as soon as possible.
Monroe to Jefferson, 17 June 1794

The code mentioned by Monroe was THE=812 (PTJ Code No. 9 / WE018; see here), the one Jefferson provided Monroe and Madison in May 1785. (Apparently, this code was for private use.)

When Jay's Treaty (1794) to settle issues left unsolved in the peace treaty of the Revolutionary War was made public, Jefferson used THE=812 to encode names in his letter of 6 September 1795 to Monroe in Paris. (Thomas Jefferson Papers)

Before receiving this, Monroe also used the code, extensively, in his letter to Jefferson at least on 7 May 1796. (Thomas Jefferson Papers) He used the code regularly in his letters to Madison in 1795-1796 (see Madison Papers for one example).

At one time, Madison lent this code to John Beckley, first clerk of the House of Representatives, who used the code in his epistle on 14 December 1795 to Monroe in Paris. The epistle included an entirely coded letter of introduction for Theobald Wolfe Tone, an exiled revolutionary from Ireland under the British rule, with an instruction "Decypher this by our friend Madison's cypher." Monroe assisted Wolfe Tone in approaching the French Directory government.

Public Code Used by Monroe

In his correspondence with the Secretary of State, Edmund Randolph (1794-1795), Monroe used some code (mentioned in his letter to Washington on 19 November 1794; another example is Edmund Randolph to Monroe, 29 July 1795 catalogued in A comprehensive catalogue of the correspondence and papers of James Monroe).

Monroe used some code in writing to Timothy Pickering (1795-1800), who succeeded Randolph, in a letter of 10 March 1796 (A comprehensive catalogue of the correspondence and papers of James Monroe). Monroe, in his letter to President Washington dated 24 March 1796, used "the public cipher in the hands of the Secry of State", which is THE=1155 (though the image is not very clear) (see image; this letter is acknowledged in Washington to Monroe, 25 August 1796).

Probably about the time Monroe succeeded Morris, copies of a 1600-element code (THE=792, WE024) were supplied to Gouverneur Morris (minister to France, 1792-1794), Monroe (minister to France, 1794-1796), David Humphreys (minister to Portugal, 1791-1796), "Mr. Pinckney" (probably, Thomas Pinckney, minister to London,1792-1796), and Short (minister to the Netherlands, 1792-1794, to Spain, 1794-1795). (Weber p.133, 147-148)

When John Jay signed in London what would be called Jay's Treaty in November 1794 but had to defer its proclamation for the time, he wrote to Monroe as follows:

as Mr. Pinckney [minister in London] has a cypher with our other Ministers in Europe, either he or I will shortly use it in communicating the principal parts of the Treaty confidentially.
Jay to Monroe, 28 November 1794

Monroe needed the information to remove the French government's concern about the treaty. When Monroe received this letter, however, Monroe thought it better to send his secretary to London to get the information. His predecessor had taken the cipher with him.

I have thought it proper to resume my original plan of sending a person to you for the necessary information, and have in consequence dispatched the bearer, Mr. John Purviance for that purpose. I have been the more induced to this from the further consideration that in case I should be favoured with the communication promised in cypher, it would be impossible for me to comprehend it, as Mr. Morris took it with him.
Monroe to Jay, 17 January 1795

As Monroe reported to the Secretary of State (Edmund Randolph) on 1 February 1795, Mr. Purviance was instructed to bring him a copy of Pinckney's cipher for future use. However, Pinckney did not have cipher for that. (Thomas Pinckney to Monroe, 18 February 1795)

From Vice-President to President

The details about later years have been moved to another article.

Jefferson resolved to return to politics and ran for the presidential election of 1796. This time Washington was determined not to run. Jefferson lost to John Adams but received more votes than Adams' running mate, Thomas Pinckney. Thus, according to the rule at the time, Jefferson became vice-President under his rival.

In the presidential election of 1800, Jefferson defeated Adams and became the third President of the United States.

Jefferson appointed Robert R. Livingston as minister to France (1801-1804). He used a 1700 element code THE=968 (WE027) in more than 45 letters to Madison, the Secretary of State. (See another article.)

In 1802, Jefferson sent Livingston a cipher based on a new scheme which he found "the easiest to use" and "the most indecypherable". It employed transposition rather than substitution and was originally designed by Robert Patterson.

Jefferson found it better than his own wheel cipher and first thought of making it an official cipher in the State Department (Jefferson to Patterson, 22 March 1802). In the end, he provided it to Livingston for private matters (Jefferson to Livingston, 18 April 1803), though there remains no evidence that the cipher was ever used.

Details of Patterson's cipher (WE098/WE099/WE100/WE101) will be given in a separate article (see here).

In 1803, James Monroe was sent to Paris to assist Livingston in negotiating with the French government under Napoleon Bonaparte about the purchase of Louisiana. He used THE=1385 (WE028) in his correspondence with Secretary of State, James Madison. The first use of this code was for the price for Louisiana Purchase that President Jefferson was ready to accept. (See another article.)

The State Department continued to use this code under the two Secretaries of State under President Madison: Robert Smith (1809-1811) and Monroe himself (1811-1814). Indeed, the code was used as late as 1848 and came to be known as Monroe's Cipher. (See another article.)

©2009 S.Tomokiyo
First posted on 11 April 2009. Last modified on 15 November 2009.
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