Originally published August 5, 2012
The Jefferson Key by Steve Berry. Available for under $10.00.
In honor of a new follower to this blog, I thought that this week I would review something to do with American history. As mentioned before, Steve Berry is one of my favorite historical fiction writers. His research is impeccable and he always gets you wrapped up in the just-might-have-been.
The Jefferson Key is actually a cipher tool developed by Thomas Jefferson for coding messages. It was so effective that the concept was used by the U. S. military from 1923 to 1942 (although that version was developed by a fellow named Commandant Etienne Bazeries (see Wikipedia). Steve, in his usual manner, sorts all the facts and fiction out for you at the end of his story.
What I did find fascinating in this book is the author’s use of a clause of the Constitution to build his story. The practice he mentions of the government use of merchant ships to engage in privateering (not pirating) on the high seas during time of war was common in the time period. Countries could not build vast navies and didn’t have the resources to man them and provide maintenance. So, they contracted with private persons (something like what we do today) with what is known as “letters of marque.”
This story is about a group of such families that held this position during the Revolution and some of who had a long history as pirates. In the book, these families formed a society they called the “Commonwealth” and it became a powerful financial and political influence. Each generation of each family had only one member that understood the real secrets of the society. Berry ties in historical presidential assassinations and uses the Jefferson Key as a way of secreting the original “letter of marque,” the Commonwealth’s legal basis for privateering. Without the letter they are nothing more than pirates and subject to the law. Meaning, they could lose everything built up over the past two or three centuries.
This Cotton Malone adventure is a fascinating read and an interesting way to get introduced to American history and some of the lesser known aspects of our Constitution and the revolution!