Intriguing for the Presidency in 1801

Our first example of Aaron Burr’s secret writing is a code developed to communicate with one of New York’s congressional representatives, Edward Livingston, about balloting for president in the House of Representatives that played out in February 1801.  As I recently showed in an article titled “’An Attack Well Directed’: Aaron Burr Intrigues for the Presidency” in the Journal of the Early Republic, Livingston was to act as his friend’s proxy in the House in Burr’s bid to shoulder aside his running mate, Thomas Jefferson, and become the third president of the United States.  Burr ultimately failed in his attempt, but the incident set the tone for future antagonism between the two Republican leaders.  It also led, indirectly, to Burr’s fatal duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

Scholars have long known of the existence of the key to Burr’s secret code, as well as one of his letters to Edward Livingston (dated 12 February 1801) so encoded.  A transcript of the decoded letter appears in Mary-Jo Kline and Joanne W. Ryan’s Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr (1983), and the key and letter are reproduced in the microfilm edition of Burr’s papers.  The original letter is damaged and difficult to read, which may explain why Kline, Ryan, and their staff made several minor errors in transcription.  I present an amended transcription here.  The historical significance of the key itself has been little discussed, for which oversight I offer this remedy.

A quick review of the key exhibits its essential form.  Numbers, running from 1 to 191 (with some gaps), are paired with words or phrases.  In almost all cases each word or phrase corresponds with a number.  There are only three exceptions to this rule: “Burr,” “Jefferson,” and “Votes” are allotted two numbers each.  This choice is understandable as a design to mask frequent use of these words in Burr’s correspondence with Livingston.  The bulk of the numbers in the code correspond to the names of states and their US representatives, who were charged by the constitution with choosing between candidates when a general election resulted in an electoral tie (in this case, Jefferson and Burr both amassed 73 votes).  Other numbers correspond to cities (Washington, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Albany—where Burr was attending a session of the New York assembly during the electoral crisis); to federal legislative bodies, judicial positions, cabinet offices, and the names of cabinet officers; to New York State legislative bodies, political offices, and leading politicians of both parties; to relevant political terms (“Appointed,” “Elected,” “Nominated,” “Ballot,” “Usurpation”); and to the names of several additional men (Madison, Giles, J. Taylor, Duncanson, Law, Dallas, Montforte) who were, it may be surmised, thought likely to figure in the drama that was to unfold.

Several inferences may be drawn from the code and the letter.

  • That the key was of somewhat recent vintage (it includes names of congressmen, such as Littleton W. Tazewell of Virginia, who came to serve in Washington only shortly before the balloting); but that it was not entirely up-to-date or accurate (it excludes several congressmen present in Washington at that time).
  • That Burr was anxious that he and Edward Livingston be able to communicate secretly about all the men likely to exert influence in the voting in the House of Representatives.  This inference supports my contention that Livingston was to serve as Burr’s proxy in Washington, and that Burr expected that the event would play out over multiple ballots.
  • That Burr and Livingston also wished to communicate secretly about state politics, especially about party rivals (such as DeWitt Clinton, Ambrose Spencer, and Brockholst Livingston) for offices in the gift of the state’s Council of Appointment, and about the state Republicans’ Federalist antagonists (such as Alexander Hamilton and the outgoing Governor, John Jay).  Evidence suggests that Burr was pledged to support Edward Livingston as the state Republicans’ nominee for appointment as mayor of New York City, a lucrative office that must have appealed to the nearly-bankrupt Livingston; indeed, both Alexander Hamilton and DeWitt Clinton charged that Burr’s patronage for this state appointment served as a quid pro quo to gain Livingston’s vote and influence in the balloting scheduled for the House of Representatives.  Not coincidentally, the decoded letter of 12 February 1801 is concerned largely with Burr’s struggles in Albany against his Clintonian rivals (Samuel Osgood, Ambrose Spencer, and DeWitt Clinton) over the mayoral nomination.
  • That Burr imagined that cabinet appointments and federal judges were likely to assume some consideration in the electoral balloting.
  • That Burr, like many Republicans, feared that Federalists in Congress might steal the election by deadlocking the voting, and either appointing a President pro tem from the US Senate or voiding the general election entirely.  This fear explains the inclusion in the code of the word “Usurpation.”
  • That the existence of such an extensive key suggests strongly that Burr’s letter to Livingston of 12 February 1801 was not the only coded correspondence that passed between the two men.  The rest of this correspondence was most likely destroyed to cover their tracks.
  • That British-born land speculators William Mayne Duncanson and Thomas Law were linked somehow to Burr’s activities at the time.  Both men had made their fortunes in the 1780s as agents of the British East India Company; more recently, they had immigrated to the United States, where they invested heavily in town lots in the District of Columbia whose potential value they cherished.  Yet at the time of the balloting in the House, it remained an open question whether Washington would continue as the permanent location of the national capital.  In the same way Duncanson and Law surely did, several of Maryland’s representatives and senators were reported to fear for the value of their real estate investments in case of a hung election, which is why these men were interested in backing a presidential candidate who was willing to commit to the Washington location.  If the Washington Times (the unofficial pro-Burr Federalist mouthpiece) can be believed, Burr negotiated to do just that.  Perhaps Duncanson and Law acted as intermediaries in this negotiation.  At the very least, Duncanson, from his home address in the District, did serve Burr by conveying a letter from the New Yorker, under cover, to Thomas Jefferson shortly after it became clear that the two men were tied in the electoral vote.
  • That, as I show in “’An Attack Well Directed’,” Burr was particularly interested in his number 191 (William G. Montfort), a designing young man who had once sought Jefferson’s patronage but eventually landed in New York reading law with Burr, and who now gave every appearance of acting as Burr’s secret runner in the balloting affair.  Burr claimed to Albert Gallatin, in a letter of 12 February 1801, that Montfort, unaccountably, had left New York “suddenly and in some agitation.” (Henry Adams, Life of Albert Gallatin, 246)  Yet, at the same time, Burr’s factional rival DeWitt Clinton was informing an ally in the New York delegation that Montfort “put up at the house of his patron in N. Y. and he came up to this place at the Extra Session, continued here in the same house during that period & returned. . . . He I know when here corresponded with friends in Virginia respecting the election. So much attention paid to him was not without an object, knowing as I do the complexion of the man’s [i.e., Burr’s] mind. I must own to you that I have never had suspicions (perhaps ungenerous) erased from my mind in this business. But of this a hint is sufficient.” ([DeWitt Clinton] to General John Smith, 15 Feb. [1801], Misc Mss Smith, New-York Historical Society, New York)  Either Clinton was wrong in his suspicion or Burr was trying to bamboozle Gallatin.  I incline to the latter explanation, especially because, following the election, Montfort himself later contacted Edward Livingston to retrieve a communication Burr had enclosed in a letter to his confidential friend.  “As it is of some importance,” the young man remarked dryly, “I will be obliged to you to put it in the post office.” (William G. Montfort to Edward Livingston, 24 Feb. 1801, Edward Livingston Papers, Rare Books & Special Collections, Princeton University)  This letter has never been found.
  • That Alexander J. Dallas (No. 190), who is bracketed with Montfort in the key, also may have served Burr as an intermediary devoted to advancing his interests in Washington, and relaying political intelligence to Burr from Philadelphia.  Interestingly, Dallas was another Anglo-American.  The son of a Scotsman, A. J. Dallas was born in Jamaica, but grew up in Edinburgh and London.  Thereafter, he married the Pennsylvania-born daughter of a major in the British army and removed to Jamaica, where he was admitted to the bar.  In 1783, his wife’s ill health led Dallas to relocate his family to Philadelphia.  In time, Dallas was named Secretary of the Commonwealth, and he played an instrumental role in founding the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania.  Eventually, after serving as US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Dallas was appointed US Secretary of the Treasury following the resignation of his friend and political ally Albert Gallatin.

Next up: Aaron Burr uses a book cipher to coordinate the publication and dissemination of a controversial political pamphlet.


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