Aaron Burr’s Secret Writing

Aaron Burr, Jr., was an American Revolutionary War veteran, a New York lawyer and land speculator, a ladies’ man and early feminist, a U. S. senator and the nation’s third vice president, a founder of the Manhattan Bank and killer of Alexander Hamilton, and an inveterate schemer who, in 1806, aimed to lead a revolution in Mexico and, perhaps, even detach the trans-Appalachian states from the American union.  He was also, not coincidentally, a devotee of the science of “secret writing”—the use of ciphers and codes to disguise correspondence.

This devotion is understandable, given that Aaron Burr’s political and financial designs often depended on maintaining the secrecy and security of his communications.  Even his everyday correspondence abounded with oblique references and private allusions, which, often as not, reflected a desire to cloak his meaning.  When it comes to Burr’s encrypted letters, the defense against prying eyes was taken to another level.  Throughout his career, Col. Burr (as he was widely known) designed a variety of ciphers and codes for use in a variety of circumstances and situations.  Some of these cryptographs, especially those invented on the spur of the moment, were simple and relatively insecure exemplars of the art; other specimens of his secret writing were more complicated and difficult to decrypt, if not otherwise cryptographically innovative.  In no such cases did Burr, like many of America’s founding leaders, employ secret writing as part of his official duties; it always served him in some private intrigue or other subterfuge.

The Task of Decryption and Interpretation

The series of blog entries to follow will consider several notable examples of Aaron Burr’s use of secret writing, not all of which are well known.  Where possible, the plaintext will be revealed.  In some cases, the key to a code or cipher is now more-or-less available in the archives, either in whole or in the form of contemporary decipherment.  In other cases, the plaintext has been determined through time-honored methods of cryptanalysis.  In all instances, revealing the plaintext requires identifying the type of cipher or code used for encryption.  Where particular ciphers and codes of Burr’s have yet to be broken this series will present transcriptions of the correspondence in question, and, working from internal evidence and historical context, offer hints and clues toward solutions, along with discussion of the letters’ historical significance.  In the spirit of web 2.0 and the digital humanities, the information and ideas advanced here are meant as invitations to collaboration or spurs to clarification.  Readers with cryptanalytic skills or historical insight may thus contribute to solving long-standing interpretive puzzles left by Burr in his correspondence.

The examples presented here are undoubtedly merely a small subset of the once extensive corpus of Burr’s secret writing, much of which was purposefully destroyed or otherwise lost to history.  Yet who knows what other examples of his clandestine correspondence may remain as-yet-unidentified and encrypted in the archives or in private hands?


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