Secret Codes and the Founding Fathers

November 5, 2010

Never say “never.” I recently blogged about Thomas Jefferson’s Library, a reprint of our third President’s library catalogue as recreated by his secretary, Nicholas P. Trist. I’ve always been intrigued by Trist’s subsequent checkered diplomatic career, so I added, “Trist later had a controversial career as a diplomat – if I ever find a Government publication concerning him, you’ll hear all about it,” assuming that the chances of finding a book like that were practically nil. Meanwhile, I had requested copies of a number of publications from the Center for Cryptologic History at the National Security Agency to blog about. After they arrived, I began thumbing through Masked Dispatches: Cryptograms and Cryptology in American History, 1775-1900. Of course, the title of Chapter 15 is “Nicholas Trist Code.”  That’s why I decided to discuss this book first.

Masked Dispatches presents some of the Founding fathers as active participants in spycraft. America’s first espionage code was devised by Benjamin Tallmadge, General George Washington’s director of secret service, for use by a spy ring set up in New York in 1778. Another chapter discusses Washington’s supplying of invisible ink to Tallmadge. What would Parson Weems have thought?

Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to the world of codes and ciphers was a mechanical device – a wheel cylinder. Although not much came of this invention, which was developed some time before 1802, in 1922 the Army adopted a similar device, bearing out President John F. Kennedy’s White House remarks to a roomful of Nobel Prize winners: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Even less surprisingly, Aaron Burr, that brilliant and ever-controversial character, appears in Masked Dispatches, as does John Quincy Adams in his role as America’s representative at the Prussian court. While in Berlin, he developed a sliding strip cipher – apparently not the easiest device to use, but another tribute to early American ingenuity and aptitude for secrecy.

The book includes much more – a chapter on Civil War ciphers, the use of codes during the 1876 Tilden-Hayes Presidential election scandal, and several descriptions of State Department codes. Particularly intriguing are the many reproductions of the various codes and ciphers, so  puzzle lovers and would-be spies can spend hours encoding and decoding.

Masked Dispatches and other publications on the history of cryptology can be ordered from the Center for Cryptologic History area of the National Security Agency’s web site, or you can find it in a library. I’ll be blogging about some more of these excellent books in the near future.

Oh, wait, Nicholas Trist! According to Masked Dispatches, when he was Chief Clerk of the State Department, President James K. Polk sent him to Mexico as a secret agent in an effort to end the Mexican War. From Mexico, Trist wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan and explained his design for a code. It was a book code, but the title of the particular book he used was a mystery until the 1980’s, when shrewd scholarly detective work revealed that it was an obscure book on the Spanish language (Verdaderos principios de la lengua castellana by Joseph Borras). Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, but only after ignoring his recall by Polk. The President accepted the treaty but fired his emissary – and Trist didn’t even get paid for his time in Mexico!

A Bibliophile’s Delight

October 25, 2010

It’s about time I tackled some of the riches of the Library of Congress (LC) here. The question: where to begin? I was talking to someone about Thomas Jefferson last week, so why not start with the man who sold his library to the Federal Government after the British burned the congressional library during the War of 1812, thus supplying the foundation for today’s LC? The 1989 edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order restored to public view a unique copy of Jefferson’s personal shelflist, and one with an unusual history. Jefferson had sent along a copy of his personal library’s catalog with the books he sold to the Government, but it has been lost. Later, he asked Nicholas P. Trist, his secretary and future grandson-in-law, to recreate the catalog and its unique arrangement. (Trist later had a controversial career as a diplomat – if I ever find a Government publication concerning him, you’ll hear all about it.) After Jefferson’s death, Trist’s manuscript vanished until 1917, when it turned up in the library of Camp Wheeler in Georgia (talk about gold in your attic!) and was donated to LC, which published it for the first time in this edition.

The Introduction explains the provenance of the manuscript as well as its unusual structure, based on the system developed by Francis Bacon in his The Advancement of Learning. As the editors point out, “To twentieth-century eyes, parts of Jefferson’s classification, may seem puzzling. It is no surprise to find categories such as Modern British History under the broad division of history, but such unexpected subjects as Agriculture, Surgery, and natural History also appear there.” According to Jefferson’s world view, “history” meant all of the known facts about the physical universe, so these topic headings, seemingly so disparate to us, made perfect sense to the 18th century mind.

Although Jefferson’s methods of library cataloging are of great interest and carefully explained by the editors, my real interest was in Jefferson’s reading habits. Lots of books under Politics, of course – most of the great Enlightenment theorists and reformers are represented, including Cesare Beccaria, that great foe of judicial torture, whom I hold in particular esteem (trivia: his grandson was Alessandro Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, the greatest Italian novel of the 19th century). Speaking of literature, Jefferson owned works by such robust authors as Tobias Smollett (Roderick Random), that most unorthodox clergyman, Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey), and even the somewhat shady Restif de la Bretonne. His poetry interests leaned towards the  Greeks and Romans, but he also had a place for Americans like Philip Freneau and Phyllis “Whateley.” As with the rest of his holdings, Jefferson’s collection of literature represents quintessential Enlightenment taste.

As you can tell, browsing through this remarkable catalog is great fun, even as it sheds light on the intellectual roots of our third President. It’s available online from LC and has been reprinted by a private publisher, although without the distinctive faux marbling covers (above). You can also find it in libraries.

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