It’s great when you find your special interests converge. I have always had an interest in American history and especially American Presidents. And now, my new interest is cybersecurity and computer forensics. I had not realized this, but our Founding Fathers were very fond of encrypting their messages. They feared that they may fall into the wrong hands. Who knew the NSA went back so far! It stood to reason, though, as mail robberies were common, and this was the only form of communication available over long distances.
Our fourth President, James Madison, was especially adept at encoding messages (and he was maybe the most paranoid), but so were Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, amongst others. They began using a polyalphabetical code developed by James Lovell, a Continental Congress delegate from Massachusetts.
Lovell’s code was time-consuming and Madison, along with Edmund Randolph (a Virginia Governor and US Secretary of State), developed a secret seal to circumvent it.
In writing to Monroe, Madison developed a 600-element code, thinking it would suffice and would “answer every purpose.” But, it proved unworthy, and the code was lengthened to 1,500 elements. Eventually this grew to 1,700 elements, and was known as “Jefferson’s Third Cypher.”
Jefferson used encoded messages with others, as well. “I send you a cipher to be used between us, which will give you some trouble to understand, but, once understood, is the easiest to use.” In 1802, President Jefferson wrote this to the US Minister to France, Robert Livingston. The cipher he used was derived from the Vigenere cipher, which was used in Europe and considered unbreakable until around 1830. The code was based on a twenty-eight-column alphanumeric table.
Intercepted messages, and perhaps even a Colonial form of identity theft, was prevalent in Madison’s day and they took all precautions they could, much as we use anti-virus software and strong passwords.
Some information for this post was found at Library of Congress, American Memory. Link here.