Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Dumas, 6 January 1780

From Dumas

ALS: American Philosophical Society

In the letter published below, Dumas asks for confirmation that Franklin has received “a certain paper under cover of Dr. Bancroft.” That deliberately vague phrase referred to the “dictionary” or nomenclator code that John Paul Jones had generated during the summer of 1779, and that Dumas and the captain had been using for several months.

Jones had originally devised the “cypher” (as he sometimes called it) for his private correspondence with Franklin. He sent it to Passy on August 13, 1779, the day before his squadron sailed.7 Although Jones’s covering letter has survived, the enclosure has not, and we have found no acknowledgment of its receipt.

After his return to the Texel in October, Jones gave the code to Dumas, whom Franklin had instructed to provide for the needs of the captain and his squadron. The first known use of the code is in an undated letter from Dumas to Jones, assigned to November 17.8 Several weeks later, Jones directed Dumas to send the code to Edward Bancroft for the use of both Bancroft and Franklin. The Dutch agent did so on December 15, cautioning that before he would begin to use the code, he would wait for word from either recipient that the paper had come safely to hand.9

This time, the code did arrive at Passy. It was a numbered list of 928 words, arranged in a roughly alphabetical order. (Every so often, a block of words beginning with one letter was exchanged with a block of words beginning with the following letter, so that the alphabetical sequence was slightly scrambled.) For words not included in the numbered list, a simple letter-for-letter substitution table dictated that A would be replaced by E, B by F, and so on for twenty-five letters. (J was excluded.)1

Franklin and Bancroft discussed the code and, in a now-missing letter to Dumas of January 24, 1780, Franklin explained their concern over certain deficiencies. Dumas’ reply, promising to make adjustments, is below, February 4. On February 8, Dumas sent what he called his “remedy” (a list of changes which involved renumbering the “dictionary”) and wrote a few encoded lines to test the system. Franklin’s working copy of the code (in Temple’s hand, but renumbered by his grandfather) is at the American Philosophical Society.2

Amst. 6th. Jan. 1780

Honoured & dear Sir,

I hope all my Letters, since I left the Texel, are come at your hands, & also a certain paper under cover of Dr. Bancroft. Here are the copies of the new protestations of our good wigh-cities.3

This moment I receive yr. respected favour of the 27th. The relation of Genl. Sullivan’s expedition is very interesting. I would that of Count d’Estaing’s had been as successfull.

3 days after Captn. Jones, the other vessels left also the same road. Pray Sir, let me know if you have received the paper of Dr. Bancroft, & if it is in your hands alone.

I am ever with great respect, Honoured & dear Sir yr. most humble & faithfull servant


P.S. I told you in my last, dear Sir, that I have had a very hard quarrel with the gd. F——r. He accuses me to have blackened in your eyes Mr. Gd.4

Passy His Excy. Franklin

Addressed: His Excellency / B. Franklin, Esqr. / Min. plenip. of the Un. St. / &c. / Passy./.

Notation: Dumas. Jan. 6. 1780

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7See XXX, 142, 223.

8Bradford, Jones Papers, reel 4, no. 878.

9Dumas wrote to Jones on Dec. 14, 1779, that Bancroft would soon be receiving “votre chiffre”: Bradford, Jones Papers, reel 5, no. 926. Dumas’ Dec. 15 letter to Bancroft, explaining that the enclosed code was sent “At the desire of Commodore P. Jones,” is in the Franklin Collection at the APS.

1This letter-substitution table has not survived; we have reconstructed it from the encoded Dumas-Jones correspondence.

2This sole surviving copy of the code, with its original numbering and followed by the revised letter-substitution table, is printed in Ralph E. Weber, United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Chicago, 1979), pp. 282–9, where it is designated “WE003.” Weber also prints a renumbered version with the same revised letter-substitution table as “WE004” (pp. 290–7). His text, it should be cautioned, is unreliable; he postulates, for example, that the renumbered code may have been “incorrectly copied” (p. 78). For an explanation of Dumas’ changes to the code see our annotation of his Feb. 8 letter.

3Probably a misspelling of “whig.” Dumas enclosed his own French translation and commentary on the protests of the cities of Dort (Dordrecht), Rotterdam, Haarlem, Amsterdam, Brielle, and Schiedam against the decision to expel Jones’s squadron.

4Dumas’ last letter, that of Dec. 31, above, mentions the quarrel but not the accusation. Dumas in fact had questioned Georges Grand’s loyalty: Dumas to BF, Nov. 5, above.

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