From James Lovell1
ALS: American Philosophical Society
[After May 26, 17772]
Honored and dear Sir,
I catch up my pen in haste: but, it is not that circumstance which makes me omit prefatorial apology, in this attempt to draw You into a literary correspondence. Difference of age and other differences vastly more important vanish, when I consider our relationship as “Friends to America.” And, I am conscious that the service of these United States is the only motive prompting me at this time to an act, otherwise, egregiously vain.
Letters to Congress have been too often cast into the sea by the bearers of them, when in danger of being taken by the Enemy, in consequence of directions given by the Writers. The last unfortunate instance was where Mr. McCreary was bearer for the Honble. Mr. Deane. I think the great ingenuity of that young Gentleman could have found means to preserve a packet in the chase and his after captivity, if he had been emboldened by any consideration to make tryal, under contrary orders.3 I wish to lessen the necessity of such directions as have been heretofore given, on like occasions.
You have practised modes of secret correspondence. I submit the annexed plan to your judgment. Having gained it by accident, I am satisfied myself that it is sufficiently inscrutable to warrant the attempt of preserving packets of importance thro’ the risques of captivity.
Should this letter arrive unbroken in its seal; we may draw advantage from the Thistle. Should it arrive under dubious circumstances, you may use the Alphabet, and, by one of your ten thousand ready devices, may communicate to me a new Key-Word.4
The secret Committee doubtless give you all proper history. I am too young in my present service to know the just limits of communicating those subjects which are most interesting to your Heart. I am With great and sincere Esteem Your very humble Servant
Honble. Doctr. Franklin
Addressed: To / The Honble: Benjamin Franklin Esqr
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1. Lovell has appeared in an earlier volume as a prisoner whom the British sent to Halifax: XXII, 393 n. He was exchanged in the autumn of 1776, returned to Boston, and was elected to Congress, where he was soon appointed to the committee for foreign affairs. His command of French made him invaluable, and for much of the time he was the only active member of the committee. He was also an avid cryptographer, as this letter attests. He broke British codes, and created American ones. The latter were often too complex and confusing to be practical, it seems to be generally agreed, and were riddled with mistakes: Ralph E. Weber, United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Chicago, 1979), pp. 27–37; Smith, Letters, VII, 292 n. The codes that he supplied to the commissioners in France made new troubles for them; one of his ciphered letters, John Adams complained, was inexplicable by his own rules, “a dismal ditty,... I know not what.” Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, IV, 284. For estimates of Lovell and his career see the DAB and Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, XIV, 31–48.
2. After his appointment to the committee for foreign affairs on that date: JCC, VIII, 385.
3. William McCreery was carrying Deane’s letter to the committee of secret correspondence of July 20 to Aug. 18, 1776: above, XXII, 487 n. His “after captivity” must have been extremely brief, for he was back in Maryland by mid-February, 1777: Archives of Maryland, XVI (1897), 145.
4. Whether or not BF was baffled by all this, we are. If “thistle” is used as the key word, the example remains inscrutable.