Thomas Jefferson: Crypto-Rebel?
“These issues date back to the founding of America. In 1785, a resolution authorized the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs to open and inspect any mail that related to the safety and interests of the United States. The ensuing “inspections” caused prominent men, like George Washington, to complain of mail tampering. According to various historians, it led James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to write to each other in code — that is, they encrypted their letters — in order to preserve the privacy of their political discussion.
The need for Founding Fathers to encrypt the information they sent to each other is high irony. The intrusive post office against which they rebelled had been established specifically to provide a free flow of political opinion. In the colonial 1770s, Sam Adams had urged the 13 colonies to create an independent postal system. The existing post office, established by the British, acted as a censor and barrier against the spread of rebellious sentiment. Dorothy Ganfield Fowler, in her book Unmailable: Congress and the Post Office, observed, “He [Adams] claimed the colonial post office was made use of for the purpose of stopping the ‘Channels of publick Intelligence and so in Effect of aiding the measures of Tyranny.’” Thus, “‘the necessity of substituting another office in its Stead must be obvious.’””