by Christopher Higgs

J. Madison feared constantly. Constantly, J. Madison feared. What with the war, the revolutionary war, the American revolutionary war.  The war of independence.

Pray, have you a Cypher from Mr. Lovell? I have a long Letter from him, which is absolutely unintelligible to me, for want of his Cypher.

His cipher.

I wish that on future occasions of speaking of individuals we may use the cypher, which we were taught by Mr. Lovell.

Mr. Lovell, like many early-American elder statesmen, became infected with paranoia.  Infected, like J. Madison.  Including J. Madison.  Including him, the Father of the Constitution.

You can easily explain my figures by taking 3 regular alphabets of 27 Letters, J after I, V after U, and making 27 with the 24.

His cypher.

43.321.5.47.5 732.12 5.433.4

I have a letter from General Washington, wrote J. Madison.  I have obtained a copy of the Cyphers: this I shall not forward by post, as I expect a good private opportunity next week.

Oh, forget it.  Begin your Alphabets with the 3 first Letters of the name of that family in Charlestown, whose Nephew rode in Company with you from this City to Boston.

Let the keyword be the name of the Negro boy who used to wait on our common friend.

Mr.  Lovell.  Mr. Hon. James Lovell, a prominent member of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, mistakenly sent a cryptic letter to his friend John Adams on May 4th 1780—John Adams, busy writing and ratifying The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts—in which Mr. Lovell conveyed his concern over the potential for sensitive material to fall into the wrong hands.  The letter went like this:

If you receive any Thing from me in Cyphers it will be upon the same Mode as that which I have communicated to Doctr. Franklin and which will serve great Numbers with equal safety. It is the Alphabet squared as on the other Side and the key Letters are the two first of the Surname of the Family where you and I spent the Evening together before we set out from your House on our Way to Baltimore.

Baltimore? Had Adams ever gone with Lovell to Baltimore? No, but J. Madison had done. And so the secrets crossed. The falsity of Baltimore. The codes scrambled. Lies became light.

No more cyphers.

But how to communicate during wartime without ciphers?  They could not.

Could they? The other delegates?

J. Madison suggested they lengthen the code nomenclatures into the 1,500-element range, to offer greater security and greater flexibility for dispatches. As homage to Mr. Lovell.

43.321.5.47.5 732.12 5.433.1077.788.1002

Let the keyword be the true Christian name of the whore we shared in Salem, wrote J. Madison.

But still, constantly, the Father of the Bill of Rights worried over the codes, the cipher.

In our death and subjection, It will all end, should ever the cyphers be uncovered by our Enemies.

Peace? What peace? How can we find it without our cyphers?

Unable to understand or even make sense of the codes, the war effort foundered.

A great check I find, a great check to secret communications from the defects of your cypher, wrote J. Madison. It, in the first place, is so scanty as to be extremely tedious and in the next both the letters and figures are in so ambiguous a character that great caution is necessary to avoid errors. I wish, wrote J. Madison, we could somehow or other substitute a more convenient one.  Say four score and double, perhaps?

The British teetered on the precipice of victory, all due to the miscoded or indecipherable script of J. Madison. The bringer of imminent failure. Constantly he feared the codes might fall into the wrong hands. The wrong hands.

Even after the 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and the threat of British dispatch capture, the Virginia Congressional delegates remained obsessed with secrecy, most especially J. Madison. Throughout the 1780s, they all continued to exchange codes. So much so that many of their correspondence still cannot be decoded, over one hundred and twenty years later.



Christopher Higgs teaches literature at Florida State University.  He authored The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney (Sator Press), and he assembled ONE, a collaboration with Vanessa Place and Blake Butler (Roof Books).  In 2013, The Cupboard will publish his micro-book of critical theory Becoming Monstrous. Read the next story, JAMES MONROE, here.

* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.