The Atlantic

The Founding Fathers Encrypted Secret Messages, Too

Centuries before cybersecurity, statesmen around the world communicated with their own elaborate codes and ciphers.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson is known for a lot of things—writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, owning hundreds of slaves despite believing in the equality of men—but his place as the “Father of American Cryptography” is not one of them.

As a youth in the Virginia colony, Jefferson encrypted letters to a confidante about the woman he loved. While serving as the third president of the newly formed United States, he tried to institute an impossibly difficult cipher for communications about the Louisiana Purchase. He even designed an intricate mechanical system for coding text that was more than a century ahead of its time.

Cryptography was no parlor game for the idle classes, but a serious business for revolutionary-era statesmen who, like today’s politicians and spies, needed to conduct their business using secure messaging. Codes and ciphers involving rearranged letters, number substitutions, and other now-quaint methods were the WhatsApp, Signal, and PGP keys of the era.

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