Alexander Hamilton Papers
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Description of a Cipher, [23 May 1803]

Description of a Cipher1

[May 23, 1803]

Pour se servir de l’Echiquier cy inclus,2 en place d’un Chiffre, afin d’empecher la decouverte de votre correspondance; employer la maniere suivante.

Ayant ecris votre lettre comme de coutume; vous prepárerez le papier sur lequel vous ētes intentioné a coucher votre copie secrete de la meme grandeur que le carré en Echiquier, lequel ētant placé sur le dit papier, vous l’y fixerez par les quatre coins avec des Epingles—il est indifferent par quel coin vous commenciez, soit A. B. C. ou D., pourvu que vous fassiez attention de tourner l’Exhiquier vers votre gauche. Ainsi si vous commencez par le coin A. vous ecrirez votre communication en placeant sur le papier préparé a cet effet, une seule lettre dans chaque carré découpé, allant de la droit, à la gauche, ligne par ligne, ayant ecris de cette maniére jusqu’a láfin de la page, détaché l’Echiquier, tournez le de la droite a la gauche, l’A faisant place a B. fixez le avec des epingles par les memes trous sur votre papier a lettre, continuez a copier votre lettre ainsi qu’il est explique cy dessus, et ayant remplis tous les carrés decoupés de la dite page, vous tournerez de rechef l’Echiquier en sorte que B. fasse place a C. En suivant cette maniere jusqu’a ce que vous ayez fait usage des quatre cotés de l’Echiquier, vous aurez remplis votre papier avec vingt six lignes, chaque contenant 26 letters. Pour eviter toute difficulté et confusion, vous pouvez désigner par quel coin de l’Echiquier vous avez commencé, en placeant au haut de votre communication la lettre marquante le dit coin cy dessus pour la lettre A.3

Copy, New-York Historical Society, New York City.

1According to endorsements on the cover of this document, it was first sent to Robert Troup by Evan Jones, United States consul for the port of New Orleans, who was acting as an intermediary. Jones endorsed the cover: “Received & forwarded by Your most obt. Ser E. Jones.” Troup, in turn, sent the document to H and later endorsed it: “Shewn to me this day by General Hamilton within five minutes after I had sent it to him dated this 23 May 1803 Rob. Troup.” Below the notations made by Jones and Troup is a third endorsement, which reads: “The whole were put in another cover thus endorsed in the hand writing of Genl. Hamilton ‘The Chancellor Lansing.’ J.L.”

John Lansing, Jr., a veteran of the American Revolution and a lawyer, was a member of the New York Assembly from 1780 to 1784 and in 1786 and 1788, a member of the Continental Congress in 1784 and 1785, a delegate (with H and Robert Yates) to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and a member of the New York Ratifying Convention in 1788. He was appointed judge of the New York Supreme Court in 1790 and chief justice in 1798. In 1801 he became chancellor and served in that capacity until 1814, when he returned to private law practice.

2“L’Echiquier” referred to in the document printed above may be found in the New-York Historical Society, New York City. It is a grid of empty squares with twenty-six squares to a side. At the bottom of the grid is written: “Endorsed with the initials of Chancellor Lansing thus J.L.”

3On November 5, 1808, Nathaniel Pendleton, an executor of H’s estate, wrote to Jones: “Among General Hamiltons papers was found a packet containing a Cypher for carrying on a Secret correspondence with an Explanation in the French Language, and directions as to the manner of using it. It was without a signature or any other means of ascertaining from whom it came. It was Stated to be intended to open a secret correspondence with General Hamilton by means of this Cypher. It was enclosed under a blank cover to ‘Robert Troup Esqr. Attorney at Law Newyork’ and on the back of the Enveloppe was the following Endorsement ‘New Orleans 13 Apl. 1803. Received and forwarded by your most obt Ser. E. Jones.’ We are extreemly desirous of ascertaining, if possible from whom this proposal of a secret correspondence came. We hope therefore you will be able to recollect the circumstance of your having received and forwarded this packet addressed to Col Troup, and from whom you received it, so as to trace it to its author. It is possible you may have been acquainted with the author and with his motives for proposing a Secret correspondence with General Hamilton, and if so it would be a gratification to us to be informed of them. We have no object in view in asking the favor of these communications, but to obtain authentic and full information as to every transaction any way relating to our friend in order that such circumstances as are of sufficient importance to merit it, may be preserved as materials from which the Historian may be Enabled to transmit to posterity a Correct and just account of that great man” (ALS, New-York Historical Society, New York City).

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