Monday, June 6, 2011

The Gerry/Porter Decode

   We dealt previously with the fact that  George Washington furnished a copy of Dr Church's letter to The Reverend Samuel West, who was known to have an interest and perhaps an expertise in cryptography, to be deciphered. West was able to accomplish that task with some rapidity and had a fully decrypted letter in Washington's hands quite expeditiously. But Washington furnished another copy of Church's cipher letter to Elbridge Gerry,* a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and a member of the Committee of Safety. Gerry allegedly accomplished that with some assistance from Elisha Porter, another delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress; or, that is as historians have reported it over the years. But Gerry's participation in the decoding of the letter and whether or not he had been entrusted with that task by Washington is somewhat less clear when the circumstances surrounding that decoding are examined.

   But first let's examine just who Elbridge Gerry and Elisha Porter were and what they were doing in September and October of 1775.

   Elbridge Gerry was born in July 1744 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the son of of an English merchant who emigrated to the United States and "married into substantial mercantile circles." Elbridge enrolled in the Harvard class of 1762 at the age of fourteen and graduated with his class. He gave up his original intention of studying medicine and, instead, went into business with his father and two brothers and became quite successful at it. As the conflict between Massachusetts and the Crown heated up, the Gerry family became opponents of the Stamp Act and Sugar Act and their anti-British tone was influenced by the nature of their business, international trade, which was being circumscribed by the British.  Gerry became a very partisan Whig and was elected in 1772 to the Massachusetts House where he befriended Samuel Adams and the two of them developed an extensive correspondence.  In 1773, he was appointed Secretary of the Marblehead Committee of Correspondence and a member of the Provincial Committee of Correspondence. After an incident in which an inoculation hospital Gerry owned with three other individuals was burnt down (an incident not really germane to our inquiry), Gerry refused re-election to the House, but the passage of the Boston Port Bill soon brought him back into politics. Using his ships and his connections as a merchant, Gerry was active in obtaining supplies for the port closed Boston and he set the women of Essex County to making military clothing for the militia. In October 1774, Marblehead sent him to the First Provincial Congress and that Congress selected him to serve on the committee of seven that sat during the recess.
An 1876 Library of Congress engraving of Gerry as a younger man. I know of no contemporary portraits of him during the Revolution.

   Most importantly, Gerry was appointed to the Committee of Supply. Contemporary Americans, so familiar with our current Constitution and the separation of powers, do not fully appreciate the importance of The Committees of Safety  and Supply which had extensive executive powers. In 1774 and 1775, the Crown retained executive powers in the colony through its appointed Governor and other officials. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress had no executive; so it formed special committees which had executive powers. The Committee of Safety could, as an example, give military orders, deploy troops, requisition and purchase arms, ammunition and other military supplies - activities that under, our Constitution, would be performed by the executive.

   On the evening of April 18th, 1775, Gerry, along with two other Marblehead patriots, was in Weathersby's Black Horse Tavern on the road between Lexington and Concord and observed the British forces as they marched by. Suddenly, Gerry and his companions noticed a contingent of British soldiers break off from the column and head towards the tavern. The three Marbleheaders, still dressed in their nightclothes, rushed out the back door of the tavern and hid in a cornfield until the British troops passed by.  The Provincial Congress next named Gerry as the Chairman of the Committee of Supply of the Committee of Safety, a charge that made him almost singlehandedly responsible for the supply of the Massachusetts militia. There was a desperate need for all kinds of military supplies, but especially gunpowder. Gerry sank a great deal of his personal fortune into this endeavor.

   During the Third Provincial Congress, Gerry lodged in the same chamber with Dr Joseph Warren at Watertown since they had become close friends. Warren bade farewell to Gerry as he left to fight at Bunker Hill. When Washington arrived at Cambridge, Gerry was appointed to the committee of welcome. And Washington would have had intimate contact with him given Gerry's responsibilities.

  Let's now turn our attention to Elisha Porter. Porter was born in Hadley, Massachusetts**, located about 100 miles west of Boston,  either in 1741 or 1742, the fourth son of his parents. Admitted to Harvard with the class of 1761, he went to Yale but transferred to Cambridge in his sophomore year. Returning to Hadley, Porter practiced law and was commissioned a captain of militia in 1773. In 1775, Porter was commissioned Sheriff of Hampshire County and as a Colonel of a Hampshire County Regiment, he activated his regiment upon the general alarm of April 19th, 1775 and appeared in Cambridge on April 25, 1775. He was assigned the task of placing the incoming regiments and, when it turned out that there were more colonels than regiments, he offered to resign.

   Hadley elected Porter to the Third Provincial Congress which, in turn, appointed him to Elbridge Gerry's Committee of Supply and he was very active in attempting to obtain gunpowder. He reportedly left the Congress to participate in the battle of Bunker Hill where he was reported to have lost his gun. Porter, also served on the welcome committee for Washington who, in a later letter to General Philip Schuyler, called Porter "an exceeding active man."

   As best as can be reconstructed, it appears that Washington sent  copies of Church's letter to Samuel West and to the Committee of Safety where it was received by Porter. It is unclear as to whether Washington was sending the letter over for informational purposes or whether he intended to have it deciphered. Given Washington's subsequent reaction after the letter was deciphered by Porter and Gerry, I believe that he was sending it over for informational purposes. After all, he had already sent a copy to West whose reputation in cryptography Washington undoubtedly gleaned. In any event, Gerry states that Porter was an expert in "decyphering" and that he (Gerry) himself was " somewhat acquainted with decyphering." Porter deciphered the letter, with assistance from Gerry ( according to Gerry), and sent the result to Washington's Headquarters. There is no information in any record to indicate just what Porter's and Gerry's interest or expertise in "decyphering" was, but there is no doubt that Porter possessed some knowledge and talent since his deciphered message was virtually identical to the one prepared by West.

   Washington became very upset when Gerry sent a copy of Church's letter to a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and, of course, it quickly became the talk of the Congress. Washington felt that Gerry had no authorization to violate the confidentiality with which he wished to treat this matter and, further, Washington had not forwarded his own report about Church to Philadelphia. Gerry was quite defensive when Joseph Reed, Washington's secretary, sent a note to James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, complaining about Gerry's action, but reiterated that he felt he had done nothing wrong. One gets the feeling that Gerry couldn't wait to be the first one to notify the Congress of this affair, but I feel Washington was being a little naive if he thought he could just send over a cipher letter to the Committee of Safety without some specific instructions. Washington was newly installed as Commander of the armies assembled around Boston and was a Virginian operating in the somewhat foreign land of New England and in a highly charged political atmosphere. He perhaps should have known better. Washington, understadably, was always prickly about his position. In any event, none of this had any real bearing on the real issue of Dr Church's alleged treachery.

   Gerry went on to have a very long and distinguished career, accumulating a number of enemies along the way. He became a delegate to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention. He became an anti-Federalist and Governor of Massachusetts. He became Vice President in 1812 and died in office two years later at the age of 70.

   In January of 1776, Porter was named as colonel of a regiment to be raised in Hampshire and Berkshire counties for the purpose of reinforcing the Continental Army in Canada and became part of that ill-fated expedition. A diary he kept is one of the better accounts of the end of the Canadian Campaign. Porter served throughout the war and in the Saratoga Campaign. In fact, he was ordered to escort General Burgoyne to Boston after his surrender and went by way of Hadley, camped his company in the town street, and lodged and entertained Burgoyne in his family mansion for several days. In 1788 he was appointed Brigadier of Militia and was elected to the convention called to consider ratification of it. He spoke strongly in favor. During Shay's Rebellion in Western Massachusetts, Porter commanded a Regiment of Massachusetts Militia under General William Shepard.

   Porter died in Springfield Massachusetts in May of 1796.

   * Gerry is pronounced with a "hard G." The modern term of "gerrymandering", which is named after Gerry, is commonly pronounced with a "soft G." It should be pronounced with a "hard G."

   ** Hadley, Massachusetts is also the birthplace of Joseph Hooker, Union General who suffered a concussion at the Battle of Chancellorsville knocking him senseless and allowing Robert E. Lee to win his "most famous victory." Hooker was the grandson of a Captain who served in Col Porter's regiment that responded to Cambridge after the battles of Lexington and Concord.

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