Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from James Lovell, 24 February 1780

From James Lovell

Two als: Massachusetts Historical Society, American Philosophical Society;1 copy: National Archives; transcript: National Archives

Philada. Feby. 24th. 1780


I forward the Gazettes to Boston for you, as usual without knowing when they will find a Passage from thence. Your Letter of Sepr. 30th and one from Doctor Lee of Decr. 8th. came to hand two days ago, your prior being May 26 recd. augst. 17th.—2 I hope you have got news Papers from me often, tho I have written few Letters. The commercial Comtee. are impressed with yr. Sentiments respecting Draughts. It is but a mere name at present. I hope that Branch may for a Time be conducted by the Admiralty-Board, till a new Arrangement can be formed to be executed by Persons not members of Congress.3 We are about calling on the States according to their Staples so that the Prospect of suitable Remittances is enlarged. This Plan is consequent upon the Resolve of Decr. 14.4 I am With much Respect Sir your Friend & humble Servant

James Lovell

Honble. Doctr. Franklin

The Chevalr. De la Luzerne expressed to me an Anxiety because we do not correspond by Cypher. I early communicated to you from Baltimore a very good one, tho’ a little tedious like that of Mr. Dumas.5 I inclose you a Sample at this Time.6

Addressed: Honorable / Doctor Franklin / Minister Plenipotentiary / from the United States / of America / France

Notations: J Lovell Feb. 24. 80 / To be sunk in Case of Danger

1The one at the APS is marked “duplicate.”

2BF’s letters can be found in XXIX, 547–61, and XXX, 420–1, Lee’s in Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, III, 419.

3Later in the year Lovell was appointed to a committee to study the shift of administrative responsibilities from congressional committees to civil executive departments: Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York, 1941), pp. 490–1. The Committee on Commerce presently was comprised of Meriwether Smith, James Searle, John Fell, Cyrus Griffin, and Cornelius Harnett, of whom only Searle, Fell, and Griffin were in attendance: JCC, XII, 1275; XV, 1445; Smith, Letters, XIV, XX–XXIV. The Board of Admiralty had recently taken over the administration of the Continental Navy: William M. Fowler, Jr., Rebels under Sail: the American Navy during the Revolution (New York, 1976), pp. 77–82.

4This resolution called on the states to furnish “their quotas of such supplies as may, from time to time, be wanted for carrying on the war”: JCC, XV, 1377.

5For Dumas’ cipher see XXII, 404–5.

6Lovell included a sketchy explanation of the same cipher with which he had baffled BF in 1777: XXIV, 86–8. The enclosure is reproduced as an illustration in Smith, Letters, XIV, 442.

The cipher was based on “squaring” the alphabet. Lovell postulated a 27 X 27 grid where the letters A through Z, plus an ampersand, ran down the left-hand column and across the top. The second column started with B and listed the letters in sequence down to A; the third column ran from C to B, and so on. (See XXIX, 87–8.)

Using the cipher required a key: a word or series of letters that would indicate which of the columns were being consulted to encode a given message. In the explanation enclosed with the present letter, Lovell proposed that BF use the columns headed by the key letters “c-o-r.” The first number of the coded message would indicate the place of the intended letter in the C column; the second number would show the place of the second letter in the O column; the third number would refer to the R column, and the pattern would repeat, disregarding word breaks, until the message was finished.

Lovell was exceptionally obscure in his cipher explanations, presumably out of fear that the enemy might intercept them. The unfortunate result was that they even defied BF’s attempts to understand them. (They also confounded the editors of the present edition. We now understand, however, that the key word Lovell intended to transmit in 1777 was “chardon,” French for “thistle,” and that the key letter written above the “r” of “Powder” was an “o”: XXIV, 88.) To make matters worse, Lovell himself made coding errors, even in that first sample passage just cited where the final number for “Powder & Ball” should have been “22.” Both BF and JA (to whom Lovell sent a different key word and explanation on May 4, 1780: Mass. Hist. Soc.) eventually abandoned their attempts to decipher the strings of numbers that continued to arrive from Philadelphia. On March 2, 1781 (Mass. Hist. Soc.), BF forwarded to Francis Dana the explanation that had been enclosed with the duplicate of the present letter, in the hope that Dana might figure it out. He never did.

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