J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“General Washington was exceedingly affronted…”

Back in 2007, when I first wrote about Dr. Benjamin Church’s intercepted letter into Boston, I said that among the men who volunteered to decipher it “was Elbridge Gerry, the Marblehead merchant and politician, who also recruited Col. Elisha Porter.”

And that’s what several authors say. But Gerry’s own letters suggest that he played only a minor part in the deciphering. His major role was obtaining a copy of the coded letter for Porter, a Massachusetts House representative from Hadley, and then spreading around the results.

On Sunday, 1 Oct 1775, Gerry started a letter to Continental Congress delegate Robert Treat Paine with the bad news about Church’s apparent treachery. The next day, Porter received a copy of the doctor’s document. Before Gerry mailed his letter to Paine on 3 October, he could add this confirming postscript:

the Letter (I am informed by Colo. [Joseph] Palmer) is decyphered; the Contents respect the State of the Army, the Quantity of powder now in our possession, what is expected & where, together with other Intelligence of a black & treacherous Nature.
Porter’s decoding exactly matched a translation by the Rev. Samuel West, who had delivered his work directly to Washington at what is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site. Thus, no one could deny what Church’s letter said.

Was Gen. Washington pleased with Gerry’s activity? Not at all. Gerry also sent Paine a copy of the deciphered letter, and Washington disliked having the Congress learn important news from anyone but him. He hadn’t written his own report on the Church affair yet.

Washington expressed his displeasure to his secretary Joseph Reed, who sent a note to James Warren, speaker of the Massachusetts House and thus in some way Gerry’s boss. On 5 October, Gerry responded to Reed somewhat hotly:
Col. Warren communicated your Letter which you sent him yesterday, affirming that General Washington was exceedingly affronted at my sending to Philadelphia a copy of Dr. Church’s Letter, that I ought to have known better than to have interfered in a matter in which I had not been consulted, to have seen ye impropriety of copying a Letter intrusted in confidence to another person & that I had just as much Right to have taken the original; all of which must appear highly injurious & if not supported by reason & grounded on Facts to be meer Invective, rendered the more unjustifiable by ye Manner in which it was conveyed.

With respect to ye Letter of Doctor Church’s referred to, hearing Sunday Morning that it was intercepted & wrote in cypher, & knowing the Colo. Porter was expert in decyphering, I desired him (as every friend of America had a Right to do) to offer to ye General his services for ye purpose mentioned, but did not apply in person, or by any other conduct whatever give you an opportunity of asserting as you ungenerously have that I had interfered in a Matter in which I had not be consulted. When ye Letter was sent here on Monday Evening Colo. Porter informed me of it, & shewed it without ever a suspicion that it was intrusted in Confidence as is unreasonably represented in your letter to Colo. Warren.

In consequence of which & being somewhat acquainted with decyphering I continue with him untill ye Business was finished agreeable to his desire, He had no objection to my taking a copy & ye person who wrote it having contrary to Directions taken a second copy it was immediately recovered & delivered to Colo. [Thomas] Mifflin who promised to hand it to ye General and take no other without his leave

I think it must now appear that ye copy of ye Letter came properly into my hands; that ye sending it to some particular Gentleman of ye Congress cannot effect ye Tryal of Doctor Church or with any propriety be considered an affront to ye General
Washington and Gerry—who was elected to the Continental Congress and then the Constitutional Convention—continued to work together, but I don’t think their relationship was ever warm. Gerry became an Anti-Federalist, then a Republican governor of Massachusetts and Vice President of the U.S. under Madison. (The bust of Gerry above sits in the U.S. Capitol.)


J. L. Bell said...

As I look back on these quotations from Gerry, I wonder if his 3 Oct 1775 letter to Paine should say he’d heard about the document being deciphered from “Colo. Porter,” not “Colo. Palmer.”

I took these texts from published transcriptions, and haven’t seen the originals.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

This was very interesting... I had been meaning to read it for some weeks now.