Unleashing Aristides; or, Aaron Burr “The Just”

Aristides The JustAristides “The Just” was an Athenian statesman of the Classical era renowned for his patriotism and rectitude.  He was beloved by the people until a spirit of envy led them to ostracize him in the name of averting incipient tyranny, but he was recalled when the Persians once again threatened the liberty of the Greeks.  Aristides was also the pseudonym adopted by the author (or authors) of An Examination of the Various Charges Exhibited Against Aaron Burr, Esq., Vice-President of the United States; and a Development of the Characters and Views of his Political Opponents, a pamphlet whose publication in early December 1803 inaugurated Aaron Burr’s ill-fated campaign for governor of New York State.  Like the classical Aristides, the soon-to-be ex-vice president was portrayed, in the pamphlet, as a “just” man who was envied and unfairly persecuted by his political enemies.  Unlike the traditional Athenian hero, however, it turns out that this modern-day Aristides was thoroughly complicit in his own promotion—and he employed a book cipher to cover his self-advocacy.

This entry considers the historical significance of the previously undeciphered examples of secret writing Burr used to manage the publication and distribution of the pamphlet by “Aristides.”

The Inevitable Entick’s

The sequence of several letters with encrypted passages written by Aaron Burr to his political lieutenant William P. Van Ness in late November and early December 1803 use what cryptologists call a book cipher.  The telltale signs of this variety of secret writing are the series of number pairs separated by commas, with superscript “2”s appearing, in some cases, after the second number in a pair.

Cipher Example

As was conventional, each number pair refers to a particular page and line, respectively, in a book (usually a dictionary); the addition of superscript “2”s to the number pair indicates that the second column on the page should be used to find the plain-text word.

When no additional wrinkles are present in the encryption scheme, cracking such a cipher can be simple enough: one must merely find the book upon which it is based, then check the appropriate pages, lines, and columns.  The problem is identifying the requisite book.  In this case, the history of secret writing in America offers some hints.  Many book ciphers of the period were based upon one or another edition of Entick’s Pocket Dictionary; this book was inexpensive, widely available, and portable, and it had the benefit of including most words a correspondent might need in a readily searched format.  American diplomats during the Revolutionary War developed several codes based on one of John Entick’s dictionaries; Burr himself later employed the 1800 London edition of Entick’s re-printed in Wilmington, Delaware, in his infamous secret correspondence with the American General and Spanish agent James Wilkinson.

John Entick

Initially, I pursued the obvious angle; but the 1800 edition of Entick’s did not unlock the key to the Aristides letters.  What about another edition of Entick’s?  Eight were published in Great Britain and the United States between 1790 and 1803.  But only one of these—Ming & Young’s New York edition of 1802—includes the range of pages that encompass the page numbers represented in the Aristides cipher.  A quick comparison between a sample letter and the text of Ming & Young’s volume showed that I had my match.

Thereafter, an hour’s worth of decryption revealed much of the original plain text in the four letters before me.  It turns out that the extra pages of this edition were essential to Burr’s plans for distribution of his pamphlet, because Ming & Young added to the standard dictionary a comprehensive listing of American post offices locations.  My task was not yet done, however.  To mask the identity of political friends and enemies, whose names were unlikely to appear in a dictionary, Burr supplemented his book cipher with a variety of agreed-upon alphabetical symbols (Aa, p, Z, and the like).  From the letters’ own internal logic and from inference based upon corroborating historical evidence, I feel comfortable hazarding some educated guesses regarding the identities of several of these people.  Perhaps my readers will have their own ideas about the meaning behind the remaining unexplained symbols.

The Aristides Cipher Letters

Transcripts of the letters, along with decrypted versions of the text, appear below.  Images of the original letters are available in the microfilm edition of the Papers of Aaron Burr, reel 5.  The original letters themselves are held in the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, and the Chapin Library, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

28 November 1803

7 December 1803

18 December 1803

23 December 1803

Historical Context and Significance

While the Aristides pamphlet was being readied, Aaron Burr was still Vice President of the United States.  He was also plagued by massive debts.  To stabilize his precarious financial situation and prepare for new expenses, Burr, in late autumn, sold the rights to most of his considerable New York City properties to John Jacob Astor.  Thereafter he set his sights on reaching the District of Columbia, where he was scheduled to preside over the US Senate during its winter session.  But the Vice President made sure to take his time traversing the Middle States.  At Washington Congress would be debating a bill, introduced by then-senator DeWitt Clinton and supported by many Jeffersonians who feared that Burr might seek an accommodation with the opposition, to amend the Constitution so as to designate electoral votes separately for the offices of president and vice president.  Politicians in-the-know understood that this explosive piece of legislation (the basis for the future Twelfth Amendment) was designed to forestall a reprise of the nearly disastrous election of 1800, in which, following an electoral tie, Burr angled behind the scenes to overtop his running mate in balloting conducted in the House.  It would be awkward, indeed, for the Vice President now to preside over debate in the senate chambers, and perhaps be forced to cast a tie-breaking vote, on a bill meant to stymy his own well-known pretensions for office.

So Aaron Burr took his time, knowing, all along, that secretly he was hatching a devastating riposte (the Aristides pamphlet) aimed at prostrating the friends and allies of DeWitt Clinton, and preparing his own political resurgence.  It was both to manage his complicated financial affairs and to direct the strike against his rivals that Burr sent his ciphered correspondence to Van Ness.  A close look at the decrypted passages in the letters reveals quite a bit more, besides.

Consider the following:

Despite the real estate deals with Astor, Aaron Burr’s finances in the run-up to the gubernatorial election appear to have remained precarious.  For a brief moment in late November he cherished the hope (a foolish one) that influence over his brainchild, the powerful Manhattan Bank, might solve what he called his “approaching and fatal dilemma.”  But his Clintonian antagonists were strong enough to quash any possibility of Burr returning to the bank’s board of directors and once again tapping its financial resources.  Thereafter, various schemes to raise cash and leverage credit would continue to play an essential role in determining Burr’s fortunes and regulating his intrigues.

The letter of 7 December 1803 shows that Burr was keen to play upon ill feelings against Virginian dominion over the federal government that he found festering at Washington.  This attitude did not flourish among Federalists alone; but also took root among men of Burr’s own Republican Party, especially in the New England, Tennessee, and South Carolina delegations.  Such envy would fuel some of the various expressions of “Quid” factionalism that would plague Jefferson’s second term.

The letters demonstrate that the stiletto attacks of “Aristides” were made carefully to minimize unnecessary collateral damage, which Burr’s cause could ill afford.  Galvanizing a range of supporters and allies was essential to his coming campaign.  Burr could scarcely afford to alienate the bulk of Republicans (however much he may have despised some of them), even as he also needed to rally a critical mass of Federalists to his standard.  And so Burr, in the case of a certain secretly “abused” Mr. “G” (perhaps this was Postmaster General Gideon Granger), counseled that the “irreclaimable only should be abused.”  In this respect, Aristides walked a particularly fine line when it came to its treatment of President Jefferson.

Even at this early date, Burr definitely was aiming at the governorship of New York State.  He must have known that he would never be chosen to run again for vice president on the Jeffersonian ticket.  He also must have known that the likely passage of an electoral bill by Congress and ratification of the resulting Twelfth Amendment would radically constrain his grounds for maneuver and limit his chances for success in the 1804 presidential election.  Despite the long odds, the chance to win the governor’s office of his home state presented his best political option.  Shortly after the release of Aristides, Burr therefore could be found directing his “Little Band” of lieutenants to cultivate a variety of New York politicos (men such as Marinus Willett and William Tabor) thought inclined to enlist under Burrite banners.

The letter of 18 December 1803 shows that Burr intended that Aristides “burst forth every where at once.”  To this end he tried to micro-manage the affair by post, issuing orders for a dozen copies of the pamphlet to be sent southward immediately, while others were to be delayed three weeks.  But something went awry in the process, and Burr’s careful (if over-ambitious) plans for a calibrated distribution of the pamphlet gave way, soon after publication, to its indiscriminate circulation.  Even so, Burr had reason to be satisfied with the result.  As he told Van Ness, “The demand and effect are astonishing.”

Along with the sensation, the pamphlet also generated considerable blowback.  Almost immediately, Aristides’s publishers, Ward & Gould, were besieged with demands to disclose their author’s identity.  When the publishers demurred, they were hit with several hefty legal suits for defamation.  These lawsuits Ward & Gould were, at that time, happy enough to contest, because, in addition to a standing contract to print future Burrite broadsides and campaign rags—most famously, a riotously libelous publication called The Corrector—they were indemnified, reportedly, against financial loss by Burr or one or another of his supporters.  (Unfortunately for the publishers, when Burr killed Hamilton and then fled southward, this protection melted way.  Now financially exposed, Ward & Gould moved quickly to reach accommodation with the men who had sued them.  The resulting settlement included their privately divulging the names of the author or authors behind “Aristides.”)

In addition to legal pressure, where possible the aggrieved targets of Aristides resorted to other measures of redress.  Henry Brockholst Livingston (“Judge Living Stone” in the letter of 18 December 1803), a director of the Manhattan Bank, almost immediately sent a “mortifying letter” to dun Burr for considerable outstanding debts, which required the Vice President, once again, to juggle his finances to meet unwelcome demands.  “All this is produced by the pamphlet,” Burr told Van Ness sanguinely, “and I am confident was written on the day of the first reading.  So much the better though ruinous.”  Ten days later rumor had it that Van Ness was stalking the streets of New York City looking to challenge Livingston to a duel.  “If Van Ness misses the Judge,” opined the Clintonian American Citizen of 27 December 1803, “ we presume it is settled by ballot among them [Burr’s Little Band] who is to have the next shot for if this gentleman be obnoxious to their chieftain, he must be popped at by some or all of them until he is brought down.”

Of course, it was Burr, not Van Ness, who eventually did the “popping,” with Alexander Hamilton as the Vice President’s unfortunate target.

Next up: Aaron Burr on the lam


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