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To James Madison from Thomas Jefferson, 31 January 1783

From Thomas Jefferson

RC (LC: Madison Papers). Docketed by JM, “Jany. 31, 1783,” and further docketed, in an unknown hand, “Ths. Jefferson 31. Jan. 1783.” The italicized words are those written by Jefferson in cipher.

Editorial Note

The present letter makes clear that Jefferson, before leaving Philadelphia for Baltimore, had “concerted” with JM in preparing a code for the greater security of confidential portions of their correspondence. This code, as is further shown by Jefferson’s three manuscript pages of instructions now in the University of Virginia Library, was based upon Thomas Nugent, A New Pocket Dictionary of the French and English Languages (2d ed.; London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1774). While writing the present letter, Jefferson obviously used this dictionary but apparently did not have at hand the manuscript instructions for employing the code. Consequently, he simplified the procedures previously “concerted.”

What neither he nor Madison could be expected to encipher, except by using the manuscript instructions, were symbols therein arbitrarily assigned without regard to the contents and arrangement of the dictionary. For example, in those instructions the number 1063 stands for “Antilles,” and columns of numbers alter the sequence of the 40 lines on each page of the dictionary. Thus, in the column “for writing,” line 1 becomes 6, 15 becomes 39, and 33 becomes 20; conversely in the column “for reading,” 6 is rendered as 1, 39 as 15, and 20 as 33.

Jefferson’s statement in the present letter that words numerically symbolized were to be deciphered by “using the paginal numbers in order” is misleading unless he and JM may have contrived an accessory paginal code, of which no evidence has been found. Almost certainly, then, Jefferson would have been clearer had he written that deciphering was to be accomplished by “using the line numbers in order.” With this understanding, page 33, line 19, or 33.19., would locate in the dictionary the noun “anecdote,” and in fact Jefferson so encoded the word and JM so interlineated that decipherment.

Much else that is in the manuscript instructions the correspondents could be expected to remember. “Nouns,” Jefferson wrote, “are pluralized or genetived” by placing an apostrophe “over them,” so that 33.19.’ signified “anecdotes” or “anecdote’s.” Infinitives were to be formed by writing 825.1. followed by the cipher for the verb desired. For example, 825.1. 1.6. denotes “to abandon.” The letter “a following a verb denotes it’s participle active, p it’s participle passive, thus 132.39.a is buying, 132.39.p. is bought. the part. pass. may be used for the indic. imperf. the person will be known by the pronoun prefixed e.g. 402.5. 132.39. is he buys, 402.5. 132.39.p. is he bought.”

In Jefferson’s present letter and that of 14 February (q.v.) JM interlineated most of the words symbolized, and he did the same in his own letters of 11 and 18 February to Jefferson (qq.v.), after retrieving them. Thanks to this decipherment, the present editors were enabled in large part to reconstruct the code. Clearly, however, each man occasionally erred in his encoding, and JM, in decoding, sometimes used the wrong line or even the wrong page of the dictionary. Furthermore, in a few instances he neglected to interlineate. For these reasons, access to the edition of the dictionary used by Jefferson and JM was almost indispensable.

The popularity of Thomas Nugent’s dictionary was exceptionally long-lasting. Of its twenty-nine editions, the first was published in London in 1767, the last in the same city in 1878, and a reprint was published in London and New York in 1916. The second edition, as well as several of the other early editions, was revised and augmented. Thus many of the page and line symbols used by Jefferson and Madison will be meaningless unless the second edition of that dictionary is employed in decoding them. Although no copy of that edition appears to exist in the United States, a copy is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. By a happy circumstance, a friend of the present editors, the Honorable J. Rives Childs, now retired after an eminent career as an American diplomat, was resident during much of 1967 in France. Having been chief of the Bureau of Enemy Ciphers, General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Force, in World War I, he was “much interested” in decoding the four letters mentioned above. For this great courtesy, the editors are much indebted to Mr. Childs.

The second edition of the Nugent dictionary is without pagination. Therefore, Jefferson’s comment about “paginal numbers,” in addition to the construction placed upon it in paragraph three, above, probably signifies that he and Madison had numbered the pages of their personal copies. This inference becomes virtually a certainty upon observing within this imposed pagination what might be called a built-in slip code. This means that, of all the words enciphered in the correspondence at issue, those from page 1 through page 64 run in normal, unbroken sequence. Beginning with the word “basket,” however, a break occurs. In strict sequence “basket” should appear on page 65, line 15, and be rendered 65.15. Instead, the page number is raised by 15 and the symbol rendered as 80.15. “Benevolence,” 72.7., is raised by 23 pages, to 95.7. The column of words in the dictionary, headed “BY,” beginning on page 103, line 1, is raised by 29, to 132.1. Thus the page numbers are progressively graduated until the section assigned to proper names is reached. There “Romulus,” 903.28., is raised by 125 pages and becomes 1028.28. For this reason, even though a third person possessing the requisite edition of Nugent’s dictionary should break the code through the first 64 pages, he would transcribe nonsense in deciphering words on and following page 65.

Baltimore Jan. 31. 1783.

Dear Sir

A gentleman returning from this place to Philadelphia gives me an opportunity of sending you a line.1 we reached Newport the evening of the day on which we left you.2 there we were misled by an asurance that the lower ferry could not be crossed. we therefore directed our course for the Bald friar’s: & thence to another ferry 6 miles above. between these two we lost two days, in the most execrable situation in point of accomodation & society, which can be conceived.3 in short braving all weather & plunging thro’ thick and thin we arrived here last night being the fifth from Philadelphia. I saw Monsr. de Ville-brun last night & augur him to be agreeable enough.4 I learnt (not from him but others) that to embark their sick &c will keep us three days. having nothing particular to communicate I will give you an anecdote5 which possibly you may not have heard & which is related to me by Major F6 who had it from Doctr. Frank7 Line himself. I use the only cypher I can now get at, using the paginal numbers in order, & not as concerted.8 Mr. Z.9 while at Paris had often pressed the Dr to communicate to him his10 several negociations with the Ct. of France wch. the Docr. avoided as decently as he could.11 at length he recd. from Mr. Z a12 very intemperate13 lettr.14 he foulded15 it up16 and put it into a pigeon hole. a 2d 3d & so17 on to a fifth or sixth he recd & disposed of in the same way finding no answer could be obtained by18 letter Mr. Z paid him19 a personal visit & gave20 a loose to all the warmth of which he is21 suscepble the Dr. replied I can no more answer this conversation22 of yours than the23 several impatient letters24 you have written me (taking25 them down from the pigeon hole) call on me when you are cool & goodly humoured & I will justify myself to you. they never saw each other afterwards.26 as I find no A. in the book erase the B in the first A. B. so that 1.1. may denote A. instead of AB.27

I met here the inclosed paper which be so good as to return with my compliments to miss Kitty. I apprehend she had not got a copy of it, and I retain it in my memory.28 be pleased to present me very affectionately to the ladies & gentlemen whose pleasing society I lately had, at mrs House’s29 and believe me to be

Your assured friend,

Th: Jefferson

1The “gentleman” was a “Mr. Thomson,” otherwise unidentified (JM to Jefferson, 11 Feb. 1783).

2Jefferson left Philadelphia on 26 January (JM to James Madison, Sr., 1 Jan., and n. 4; JM to Randolph, 28 Jan. 1783). Newport is on the Christina River, Del., about five miles southeast of Wilmington.

3In 1783 the country between the Susquehanna Lower Ferry, which crossed to the present site of Havre de Grace, and the Susquehanna Upper Ferry, which crossed from the present site of Port Deposit, was heavily wooded and sparsely settled. Between these two ferries was Bald Friar’s ferry, which originally had been operated by one Fry, who was bald (Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Sources, 1745–1799 (39 vols.; Washington, 1931–44). description ends , XXIII, 104, 106; George Johnston, History of Cecil County, Maryland [Elkton, Md., 1881], pp. 238–39, 301, 345; Writers’ Program, Maryland, comp., Maryland, a Guide to the Old Line State [New York, 1940], p. 323).

4Jacques-Aimé le Saige, Chevalier de la Villebrune (La Villèsbrunne), had been senior captain of the men-of-war “Romulus,” “L’Hermione,” and “Diligente,” in Chesapeake Bay ever since the rest of the French fleet, commanded by Admiral de Grasse, left the Bay for the West Indies on 4 November 1781 (Baron Ludovic de Contenson, La Société des Cincinnati de France et la Guerre d’Amérique, 1778–1783 [Paris, 1934], p. 211). Jefferson expected to sail for France on the “Romulus” (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , V, 344, n. 7). See also ibid., II, 159, n. 4; III, 4, n. 6; IV, 43, n. 4; 44, n. 5.

5For a discussion of the code, see ed. n.

6Instead of the symbol 314.4., which stands for “frank,” Jefferson wrote 352.4., meaning “figurative.” JM probably understood, by the time he finished the sentence, that “Major Figurative” was David Salisbury Franks, who expected to accompany Jefferson to France as his secretary (Papers of Madison, IV, 450, n. 14).

7The error mentioned in n. 6, above, was here repeated.

8For the probable meaning of “paginal numbers,” see paragraph 3 of the ed. n.

9“Mr. Z.” was conjectured to be either Arthur Lee or John Adams until Irving Brant demonstrated that Jefferson was referring to Ralph Izard (Madison, Letters [Cong. ed.] description begins [William C. Rives and Philip R. Fendall, eds.], Letters and Other Writings of James Madison (published by order of Congress; 4 vols.; Philadelphia, 1865). description ends , I, 62 n.; Burnett, Letters description begins Edmund C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (8 vols.; Washington, 1921–36). description ends , VII, 40, n. 2; Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , II, 266–67). The word “mister” does not appear in the dictionary. In every instance where JM interlineated “Mr.” in his letters to or from Jefferson, employing the present code, he deciphered the abbreviation from symbols indicating entries in the dictionary, beginning with “master.” These symbols were 503.10., used by Jefferson in the present instance, 503.11., and 503.12.

10The pronoun “his,” not occurring in the dictionary, was suggested by 408.36., the symbol for “hiss.”

11Since “could,” “shall,” “should,” and “would” are not in Nugent’s dictionary, and Jefferson did not have at hand the manuscript instructions in which they were assigned separate symbols, he necessarily spelled out “could” or any other of these words.

12For Jefferson’s amendment of the code in regard to the indefinite article “a,” see his closing sentence in the first paragraph of the present letter.

13The symbol for “intemperate,” 456.6., occurs in the section of the dictionary where, in conformance with Latin usage, words beginning with “i” or “j” were both included.

14For “letter” Jefferson incorrectly wrote 480.1. instead of 480.2.

15For the preterit of the verb “fold,” Jefferson should have written 361.3.p. rather than 365.3.p., denoting the same tense of the verb “foul.” This accounts for the strangeness of the decoded spelling.

16The symbol for “up,” 915.1., affords the first instance in this encoded passage of a word that, in accordance with Latin usage, as with “i” and “j” (n. 13, above), would be found among words beginning either with “u” or “v.”

17Instead of 760.33., symbolizing the adverb “so,” as written by Jefferson in his second letter of 14 February 1783 to JM, he used in the present instance the symbol 760.1., representing “SO”—a catchword at the head of a column in Nugent’s dictionary.

18Jefferson wrote 132.1., again indicating the catchword of a column, in this instance “BY.”

19JM correctly interlineated “him,” for the symbol 408.15., but he did so only after canceling a now unidentifiable word.

20Jefferson wrote 385.34.p., which JM correctly surmised was intended to be 381.34.p., “gave.”

21Since the symbol 29.1. could be decoded “am,” “are,” or “is,” JM first interlineated “am,” before writing “is” over it, as the only form of that verb which would make sense.

22JM correctly surmised that Jefferson, although he wrote 196.14., the symbol for “conundrum,” must have intended to write 195.14., the symbol for “conversation.”

23Jefferson no doubt desired to encode “the,” but he wrote 816.26. instead of 816.27.

24Jefferson missed the correct line by one, writing 480.1.′, whereas 480.2.′ was the correct symbol for “letters.” Instead of “impatient,” symbolized by 433.14., JM interlineated a meaningless “imputent.”

25Jefferson wrote 808.8., “take,” instead of 808.8.a., “taking.” So many were the idiomatic listings of the verb “take” in the dictionary that any line from 807.40. to 808.8., both inclusive, might have been indicated.

26If Jefferson intended to encode “goodly,” as interlineated by JM, he should have used the cipher 386.6. rather than 390.4., signifying “good.”

When Ralph Izard was in Paris early in October 1777, word reached him of his appointment by Congress on 7 May of that year as commissioner of the United States “for the court of Tuscany” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , VII, 334; Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., II, 403–4). Thereafter he remained in that city for nearly two years, because the grand duke of Tuscany was “prevented” by “the political state of Europe” from receiving him in his official capacity (ibid., III, 33–34). Even before his commission reached him, Izard had become involved on the side of Arthur Lee in Lee’s increasingly bitter disagreements with Franklin and Silas Deane (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (6 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 165; 167, n. 4). Although Izard was not a commissioner of the United States to the court of Versailles, he insisted he should be kept informed and even be consulted by Franklin about the negotiations with Vergennes, because their course and outcome would much affect the course and outcome of the mission to Tuscany.

The six letters mentioned in the “anecdote” were probably among the seven of Izard to Franklin on 28 January, 30 January, 29 March, 30 March, 4 April, 25 April, and 17 June 1778 (Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., II, 477–81, 522–23, 529, 537, 558, 618–26). During that winter and spring Izard also wrote lengthy dispatches to his friend Henry Laurens, then president of Congress, criticizing Franklin and commending Arthur Lee (NA: PCC, No. 89, I, 85–87; Wharton, Revol. Dipl. Corr description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (6 vols.; Washington, 1889). description ends ., II, 497–501, 531–32, 547–49).

27Each page of Nugent’s dictionary, edition of 1774, is divided into columns of words, and each column is headed by a catchword, usually comprising either two or three capital letters. As Jefferson noted, the single letter “A” appears neither as a caption nor as an indefinite article in the first column.

28Catherine Floyd (1767–1832), a daughter of William Floyd (1734–1821), a delegate in Congress from New York State. Mr. Floyd and his three children, of whom Catherine was the youngest, were among the lodgers in Mrs. Mary House’s boarding house. As Jefferson well knew, JM was manifesting much more than a casual interest in “miss Kitty” (Brant, Madison description begins Irving Brant, James Madison (6 vols.; Indianapolis and New York, 1941–61). description ends , II, 17, 33, 283). See Report on Books, 23 Jan., ed. n.; JM to Jefferson, 11 Feb. 1783. The nature of “the inclosed paper,” perhaps containing verse, is not known, but evidently she had given it to Jefferson while he was in Philadelphia.

29Besides the Floyds, Daniel Carroll, and Ralph Izard, others known to have been living with Mrs. House were her daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Nicholas Trist.

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